Sunday 23 September 2018

Neil Francis: Rising Irish stars proves malfunctioning Aviva Premiership is failing hordes of talented young players

 

Jacob Stockdale scores Ireland’s third try on their way to lifting the Six Nations trophy and the Triple Crown at Twickenham. Andy Cosslett, the chairman of the Rugby Football Union, has claimed the competiton was no longer fit for purpose. Photo: PA Wire.
Jacob Stockdale scores Ireland’s third try on their way to lifting the Six Nations trophy and the Triple Crown at Twickenham. Andy Cosslett, the chairman of the Rugby Football Union, has claimed the competiton was no longer fit for purpose. Photo: PA Wire.
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

On the evening before the big match at Twickenham I was at Keith Wood's W2 Charity black-tie gala ball at the Hilton on Park Lane, the hotel that used to host the post-match dinner for the England versus Ireland Championship matches.

Martin Bayfield was MC for the night. I had not spoken to him since we had played for our respective countries years ago.

He would have been embarrassed, I suppose, to take any compliment on how well his TV and cinematic career has gone - he is a very talented and naturally funny human being.

I have always found it hard to look up to someone else - 'Bayf' is 6ft 10in and still in prime condition.

We ended up talking about kids coming through to the national sides and Bayfield, who is good friends with Jim Mallinder, the former long-time director of rugby at Northampton, mentioned his son Harry Mallinder.

On June 25, 2016 Ireland played England in the U-20 World Cup final in Manchester. England won far easier than the 45-21 scoreline suggested and Mallinder Jnr was a sensation.

Garry Ringrose of Ireland celebrates. Photo: Sportsfile
Garry Ringrose of Ireland celebrates. Photo: Sportsfile

Playing at out-half and sporting a cropped thatch of straw-coloured hair, Mallinder, at 6ft 2in, had a languid running style and a guide-by-wire kicking game.

He cut Ireland to shreds with his beautifully-timed passing and searing pace.

Mallinder scored two tries en route to a personal haul of 25 points and was central to nearly all of England's other scores.

The rugby world could not wait for this talent to flourish and we licked our lips awaiting his arrival.

Mallinder's career has stalled on the back of two serious shoulder injuries and maybe a positional change.

His club Northampton are going through the horrors at the moment. His advent to the senior international game may or may not happen anytime soon.

That England U-20 side were awesome. Their second-rows that day were Huw Taylor and Stan South; two powerhouse athletes. They carried the ball in the palms of their hands and were offloading for fun.

No 8 Callum Chick was a dynamo and with a name like that would he go to Hollywood or just pick up 100 caps for England?

Joe Marchant in the centre had electric pace, scored a few tries and caused havoc any time he got on the ball.

A team to backbone England's quest for world domination? Yet, barely any of them are troubling any Premiership squads - nor are they likely to.

Twenty-one months later three players on the opposition team in green played a major role in Ireland's Grand Slam on Saturday. Jacob Stockdale, James Ryan and Andrew Porter had arrived.

They have no U-20 World Cup winners' medals but a Six Nations Championship medal and something far more tangible in a Grand Slam.

Max Deegan and Johnny McPhillips could easily follow them through from that U-20 team as well.

Last year on March 17, Jordan Larmour played against England U-20 in Donnybrook.

Ireland lost 10-14 that night in an absorbing tussle. England were too well organised, had great structure and their confident game plan held out.

A year later Larmour was playing on the big stage and the roles were reversed - England were are knocking on the door but couldn't get in? Is there somebody writing these scripts?

Lest our 2015 crop cry out that their contribution is forgotten - it is certainly not. Joey Carbery and Garry Ringrose (left) starred at U-20 level in their Six Nations and Ringrose lit up the World Cup.

Carbery's cameo was measured and assured in Twickenham last weekend but it was only when I reviewed the match on Monday night that I realised how well Ringrose had played.

England's midfield of Ben Te'o and Jonathan Joseph were shown up to be the one-trick pony and cheeky Charlies that they are.

In truth, Joseph does have pace - which he regularly displayed against Italy - but he is a bottler when he meets better players.

His footwork and his hands pale beside those of Ringrose. In any test at Twickenham - space is like prime New York real estate, yet Ringrose seemed to find it every time he got on the ball.

Ireland's victory can be ascribed to many things that happened over the 80 minutes but as usual it is the fundamentals which point you in the right direction - Ringrose managed to get over the gain line nearly every time he got on the ball - in impossibly crowded situations.

How did Te'o and Joseph get on a Lions tour?

We have to go back to 2014 before we see an alumnus of the England U-20 production line earning senior international caps.

Before last Saturday Maro Itoje was a future captain of England - the prophets had decreed it - but because of the profits or lack of them in the Premiership he is playing in nearly every game Saracens get to pick him in.

There is no question about Itoje's quality but the player in England's second-row last Saturday was a ghost.

It's sad to relay that the English media in the press box were agog with his shortcomings.

Every time Itoje got on the ball he seemed to gain a fraction of the yardage you would normally expect him to garner.

Dan Leavy, also from the class of 2014, had the sort of game that had the Twickenham faithful wondering where this fella had been hiding for his entire short career.

Fate is fickle and Sean O'Brien and Josh van der Flier will rue their bad luck this season.

If all were match fit and playing well my view is that O'Brien would have to be accommodated on the blindside such has been the quality of Leavy's play.

He got exposed twice in open play in the championship against pacy outside backs but other than that his carrying and tackling have been world class and I don't use that term lightly.

Phenomenal

Joe Schmidt has been the main reason for Ireland's phenomenal season, followed by the quality he has had at his disposal plus the newly-found squad depth which is not as deep as people like to think.

Despite the quality coming through, I don't think that provinces get to convert all the potential that is out there and they waste half a dozen decent prospects every year.

Ireland's newbies were a vital ingredient in Schmidt's sporting alchemy.

Kids are not weighed down as much by pressure and their unbridled enthusiasm very often has a positive effect on more experienced players.

There is no question that if all of the U-20 graduates who I have mentioned had not been available to Schmidt they would not have won the Grand Slam - simple as that.

England have many problems at the moment. How or why they don't harness the quality coming off their U-20 conveyor belt is a mystery.

England have won the U-20 World Cup three times and have been runners-up five times. Where did all that quality go?

How bad is the Premiership model for producing or keeping quality players? When the English look at our success this season maybe they might cop on to the fact that our U-20 conveyor belt is highly important for success at the highest level - maybe not!

Irish Independent

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