Saturday 21 April 2018

Schmidt looks to young guns for Eastern promise

Ireland coach Joe Schmidt. Photo: Sportsfile
Ireland coach Joe Schmidt. Photo: Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Having spent most of his life as the tallest man in the room, Devin Toner is used to standing out so being the only member of Ireland's summer tour squad who has hit the 30 mark shouldn't faze him too much.

Four years ago, he was on the trip to the United States and Canada that served as a launchpad for his own career and next month he'll be asked to play a leadership role in the development of a group of young men on whom Joe Schmidt will look to build his 2019 World Cup challenge around.

With 11 players gone to the Lions, Jamie Heaslip, Seán Cronin, Andrew Trimble and Rob Kearney given the summer off and Donnacha Ryan edged into exile; the new-broom effect is there for all to see.

One second-row, potentially fit-again Ultan Dillane, will be added to the squad next week after Munster, Leinster and Connacht play this weekend.

The 31 names announced yesterday make for an interesting blend.

There is the small number of disappointed Lions hopefuls like Cian Healy, Keith Earls, Simon Zebo, Garry Ringrose and Toner who will play a leading role.

Then there is the Six Nations contributors who were in match-day squads last spring and will hope to make hay when the Lions are away, ranging from solid bench options Paddy Jackson, John Ryan and Niall Scannell to Dan Leavy and Andrew Conway who forced their way into the match-day 23 for the England win.

There is a recalled selection of former stalwarts of the last World Cup cycle like Tommy O'Donnell and Rhys Ruddock who are at the bulkhead of a group of players in their mid-20s who have amassed caps without truly earning Schmidt's trust.

And then there is the most exciting group of players, the stars of the 2016 and 2015 U-20s crops, who find themselves in the senior set-up ahead of the usual schedule.

Consider James Ryan who could join fellow UCD man Brian O'Driscoll in playing for his country before representing his province or his ex-U-20 colleagues Jacob Stockdale and Andrew Porter who a year ago were driving their side to the World Cup final.

From the 2015 edition, Joey Carbery and Ringrose have already made the grade, while Kieran Treadwell was part of the England set-up that year.

This nod to youth is a further sign that Schmidt has the 2019 World Cup on his mind.

Unsurprisingly, he hasn't quite gone as far as Eddie Jones who is bringing 15 uncapped players, including four teenagers, to Argentina. But given the history of Irish selections, this is refreshingly forward thinking.

Unfortunately, the head coach chose to release the squad via email yesterday, meaning that unlike others like England, Scotland and Wales there was no chance to pick his brain on the selections. Last month, he gave a rare interview to RTÉ and said: "With the Lions guys going away we still feel we've got a cohort who've spent a bit of time with us and there may be one or two others who haven't where we'll take this opportunity to include them.

"The whole theme for the summer tour this year is long-term planning for short-term success.

"We know we've got to make sure we can be as competitive as we can to get the results we need in those three Test matches, but at the same time that we've got an eye for the future, that we're taking some players to Japan that we think will potentially return to Japan in two years' time."

Since then, his team were drawn against the hosts which makes the two June Tests all the more relevant.

The conditions will be challenging in all three venues given the time of year, but the coach will hope that three weeks working under his eagle eye will help develop the youngsters in particular.

He will select a captain on the eve of the tour, with Ruddock perhaps the most logical choice given his experience of skippering sides all the way up.

All the while, Schmidt will introduce Ronan O'Gara, Felix Jones and Girvan Dempsey to the other side of the international environment with all three coming on board at different stages as coaches.

The eyes of world rugby will be on New Zealand where 11 of the Kiwi's leading lights will be aiming for Lions glory and he may lose one or two more to Warren Gatland's Lions if injuries intervene.

Some will argue that Darren Sweetnam and Adam Byrne are unlucky after strong seasons, but the presence of three of the four back-three players who featured against England worked against them.

The absence of Donnacha Ryan signals he'll join Marty Moore and Ian Madigan in the exiled corner, even if he retains a slim hope of travelling given the second-row vacancy.

Schmidt will be hoping that the other Ryan can step into the breach between now and 2019.

Last year's U-20 captain is highly regarded and might already have made his Leinster debut were it not for a serious hamstring injury this season.

At the same age, Maro Itoje was beginning to make waves and given the lack of depth at lock there is an onus on fast-tracking the 20-year-old's development. If that happens on this tour and he is delivered to Leinster as a viable starter next year, it will have been a worthwhile endeavour.

Irish Independent

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