Wednesday 21 November 2018

The snowflake generation brewing a storm: Meet Ireland's magnificent seven young guns

Ireland’s new breed of professionals setting their sights on World Cup as ambition drives them on

Dan Leavy, left, and James Ryan of Ireland celebrate
Dan Leavy, left, and James Ryan of Ireland celebrate
Jordan Larmour hadn’t even run at 13 all week, yet he filled in seamlessly. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

For a moment, it is as if the forbidding eminence of Twickenham has been transformed into a wondrous snow globe. As the lights are dimmed to reveal a dismal dusk beneath a charcoal sky, artificial fireworks illuminate a success showered by a snow flurry.

A starry, sparkling white ticker-tape parade cascading from the heavens.

A cacophonous chorus of green giants skip and sing on an aptly elevated platform, their exalted status now confirmed - was it ever doubted? - with the reward of a third Grand Slam in Irish history.

One achieved, it has seemed, with minimal fuss and relentless, routine efficiency at the hostile home of the side that had won the last two championships. Which is not to diminish their success; quite the opposite, it supremely enhances it.

There were no last-minute dramas like in Cardiff on that heady day in 2009. Instead, Ireland were utterly cold, calculated and clinical in the manner in which they secured the fifth leg of a Grand Slam which, from the first, has seemed to lean more towards inevitability than mere destiny.

Bloodless

All eyes were on Andrew Porter's first scrum when he replaced Furlong against Wales and he delivered in spades and grew from there. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
All eyes were on Andrew Porter's first scrum when he replaced Furlong against Wales and he delivered in spades and grew from there. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

An almost bloodless coup, Ireland confidently bossed England, subverting the historical arc of this fixture.

England, like so many before, must have rued Ireland's tranquillity amid the heat of battle, a smooth calm that has ironed occasional creases during this historic run.

Schmidt speaks of Aristotelian resilience in the aftermath, whether responding to the shock of that Teddy Thomas try in Paris all those weeks ago, or the edgy edge defence that opened a door to Wales.

And yet one is always convinced that this Irish team will find a way to win.

Jacob Stockdale dives over to score Ireland's third try. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Jacob Stockdale dives over to score Ireland's third try. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

One doesn't fret about this team as one did the other heroes of '09; those great warriors, some survivors of the amateur era, who had lived through so many horrors that contemplating the winning post seemed to be the most terrifying thing of all.

And so the nation willed them across the line, carrying them as much as they carried the country, so that 2009 and Cardiff seemed almost like the release of a giant burden from everyone's shoulders.

That was romantic; this is remorseless. This team has freighted no such baggage. There were no demons to be purged on this St Patrick's Day. Instead of reaching the promised land, this team has arrived at a land of promise.

Ireland pledged to build from 2009 but in so many ways that almost felt as if it were a belated requiem for the glibly titled 'golden generation'; save a stunning World Cup coup in Eden Park, their status never acquired the same exalted heights thereafter.

Bundee Aki's break in the build-up to CJ Stander’s try was sensational and his pass to the flanker was even better. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Bundee Aki's break in the build-up to CJ Stander’s try was sensational and his pass to the flanker was even better. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

By 2013, they had slipped to ninth in the world, shipped a 60-0 defeat to New Zealand and completed their only defeat to Italy this century with a scattering of players in casualty.

On Saturday Ireland finished the game with a back-line being marshalled by a 23-year-old, a 21-year-old finishing his first year as a converted tighthead prop, a scrum-half on the wing and an occasional out-half (age, 22).

Jordan Larmour hadn't even run at 13 all week, yet he filled in seamlessly.

If 2009 seemed like Everest, this Ireland must remind themselves that they are merely at the foothills. Ambition can be both an anaesthetic and a stimulant.

The Ireland of O'Gara and O'Connell and O'Driscoll had grown so tired of perennial underachievement in green that by the time they scaled their heights the fear of failure had almost threatened to smother them.

Joey Carbery in action at Twickenham. Photo: Clive Rose/Getty Images
Joey Carbery in action at Twickenham. Photo: Clive Rose/Getty Images

This team thrives on the quest for success, so much so that seven of them have no experience of anything but winning.

James Ryan has played for his country before his club and is yet to lose with either, wise beyond his years on and off the field.

A decade on, the new breed sweep from the conveyor belt, off the rack. It shows little sign of slowing. Eddie Jones (150,000 senior players) bemoans a lack of depth; Ireland (25,000) lost three back-row stalwarts in Rhys Ruddock, Sean O'Brien and Jamie Heaslip (the last two of them Lions) and two other men who would have been starters.

Ireland's lock James Ryan (top) reaches above England's Maro Itoje. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Ireland's lock James Ryan (top) reaches above England's Maro Itoje. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

It took Jonathan Sexton eight years to win a Triple Crown; it seems to have taken Jordan Larmour eight minutes.

"This group has a lot more in us," says Larmour. "We need to keep working and improving and building towards the World Cup.

"We're good enough to achieve in the World Cup. We have belief and that's a big thing. Everyone's work ethic and professionalism is immense and hopefully we can kick on from here."

Sexton smiles watching the younger man sweep away with his hopes and dreams, as if this were simply a day like any other in a young, worry-free life.

"Hopefully they can keep their feet on the ground," says Sexton, the fretful father figure. Their almost fanatically rigid devotion to process should ensure it.

Worried

Dan Leavy's breakdown work was excellent throughout the Six Nations. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Dan Leavy's breakdown work was excellent throughout the Six Nations. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

We worried that the bland "just another match" mantra would have tripped up so many inexperienced players but ultimately it served to be their greatest strength. To them, pressure is invisible.

Rob Kearney, deemed by many bar-stoolers as unworthy of his place, has now started in every single match of four championship-winning campaigns.

"This team needs a World Cup," says the supposed youngest has-been of Irish sport.

The World Cup remains the only unconquerable peak. Ireland, barely requiring oxygen in this campaign need to re-gather themselves for greater heights. Australia, All Blacks, then Japan.

Larmour wants it all.

"We've won a Grand Slam, that's the first stepping stone to be being a really dominant team in world rugby. We'll have a crack at New Zealand. Our ambition is to be the best team in the world."

Try stopping them; a snowflake generation who, instead of melting, vow to whip one hell of a storm.

ANDREW PORTER

School: St Andrew’s College

Club/Province: UCD/Leinster

Age: 22; Caps: 7

Debut v USA, June 10, 2017: Despite his inexperience in the position, Porter has thrived as the cover to Tadhg Furlong and finishes the tournament a better player than he was at the start of it.

Six Nations moment: All eyes were on his first scrum when he replaced Furlong against Wales and he delivered in spades and grew from there.

JOEY CARBERY

School: Blackrock College

Club/Province: Clontarf/Leinster

Age: 22; Caps: 10

Debut v New Zealand, November 16, 2016: Came into the tournament with little game-time behind him, but has been excellent when called upon.

Six Nations moment: Coming on for Sexton on Saturday and managing the game through a tough period when Ireland were down to 14 men.

DAN LEAVY

School: St Michael’s College

Club/Province: UCD/Leinster

Age: 23

Caps: 9

Debut v England, March 18, 2017: The combative openside came on for Josh van der Flier in Paris and started the rest of the games, growing into the role as he went.

Six Nations moment: Won a brilliant turnover midway through the first half against Italy that led to a try for Keith Earls. His breakdown work was excellent throughout.

JACOB STOCKDALE

School: Wallace High School

Club/Province: Ballynahinch/Ulster

Age: 21; Caps: 9

Debut v USA, June 10, 2017: Europe’s most prolific player in 2018, his seven tries in this year’s tournament are a Six Nations record. Not bad for a young man in his first season.

Six Nations moment: His intercept against Wales triggered wild celebrations as it decided a thriller at the Aviva Stadium.

JAMES RYAN

School: St Michael’s College

Club/Province: UCD/Leinster

Age: 21

Caps: 8

Debut v USA, June 10, 2017: Captained the 2016 Ireland U-20s to the World Cup final and has made a quick transition to the top level since making his first appearance last summer despite his youth.

Six Nations moment: Dominant tackle on Maro Itoje from the kick-off with help from Jacob Stockdale helped set the tone for the victory on Saturday.

JORDAN LARMOUR

School: St Andrew’s College

Club/Province: St Mary’s/Leinster

Age: 20; Caps: 3

Debut v Italy, February 10, 2018: The bright star of Leinster’s season, Larmour’s was the only new cap handed out by the Ireland coach during the tournament.

Six Nations moment: Despite not having trained in the centre, the youngster was thrown in to replace Bundee Aki on Saturday and thrived. His outside break almost secured a stunning try.

BUNDEE AKI

School: Manurewa High School

Club/Province: Galwegians/Connacht

AGE: 27; Caps: 7

Debut v South Africa, November 11, 2017: The most experienced of the new faces, the centre has given Ireland so much physicality in midfield.

Six Nations moment: His Twickenham break in the build-up to CJ Stander’s try was sensational and his pass to the flanker was even better.

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