We have now entered the home stretch in our ‘Future of Rugby’ series, with our recent look at France completing the teams ranked eighth through fifth, and we now come to Ireland, currently the fourth ranked side in the world, and their U23 options.
The Irish pathway is consistently productive in the province of Leinster thanks, in addition to the excellent work done at the school, club and provincial levels, to the size of the population, but one of the more encouraging signs in recent years have been the green shoots that have shown themselves in the other provinces.
We have put together a XV of the best U23 talents in Irish rugby currently, with the only selection criteria being that the player must be 23 or younger on May 1st 2020.
- Jordan Larmour, Leinster
Larmour is an obvious and understandable call, with the versatile back three player already one of the most exciting and elusive attacking threats in the game. That said, there is cause for encouragement with some good depth building behind the Leinsterman, most notably in Munster’s Jake Flannery and Ulster’s Michael Lowry.
- Calvin Nash, Munster
Nash is unlucky not to have seen more playing time for Munster over the last season or two, but has been a victim of the consistency and durability of Keith Earls, Andrew Conway and Darren Sweetnam. The 2020/21 season could be a make or break one for Nash as he seeks to establish himself as his hometown side, and he has the talent to do just that.
- Hayden Hyde, Ulster
A really tough call here with Leinster’s David Hawkshaw a very accomplished player, though we erred on the side of Hyde’s potential and just how destructive of a player he could become. A former age-grade back row at Harlequins, Hyde has been playing at centre for less than three seasons, but he is already showing signs that he can push on at the position at a higher level.
- Dan Kelly, Loughborough University
Having headed to Loughborough from Kirkham Grammar last summer, Kelly is another success story for the Irish Exiles programme. He shone during the U20 Six Nations and has since secured a professional contract with Leicester Tigers. That may put the brakes on a career with Ireland, although for now he is still eligible to the nation’s age-grade side and will be monitored closely by the provinces and the IRFU.
- Robert Baloucoune, Ulster
There is plenty of competition here for Baloucoune and it all comes from his Ulster teammates. The trio of Rob Lyttle, Angus Kernohan and Aaron Sexton are all very talented individuals and more than deserving of honourable mentions. As for Baloucoune, the next challenge is emulating his other teammate, Jacob Stockdale, and making the leap to senior international rugby.
- Harry Byrne, Leinster
A few other names for consideration here, including Leinster’s versatile Ciarán Frawley, as well as Bill Johnston and Johnny McPhillips, two players who weren’t quite able to lock down starting roles with their previous provinces. That said, Byrne is advancing swiftly down the path taken by his older brother Ross a few seasons ago, and has already been included in a senior Ireland training squad.
- Craig Casey, Munster
Munster and probably Ireland have their successor to Conor Murray in the form of Casey, with the cultured scrum-half one of very few examples of an U20 player featuring for the province at the senior level. Those appearances were beginning to increase in volume this season, before the COVID-19 outbreak has all but ended it. He and Byrne could go on to emulate the synergy that Murray and Johnny Sexton have had over the past decade.
- Josh Wycherley, Munster
With both Cian Healy and Jack McGrath heading into the latter stages of their careers, as well as provincial teammate Dave Kilcoyne, Wycherley is a name we could be hearing a lot more about in the coming seasons. He was impressive at the U20 level and though he is to make that transition to regular senior rugby with Munster, there looks to be the bones of a very good prop there.
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- Ronan Kelleher, Leinster
It was tempting to go with Connacht’s Dylan Tierney-Martin here as recognition not only for his ability, but also the challenges Connacht face in comparison to the other three provinces, though Kelleher is currently a number of steps ahead of his positional rival. Kelleher has excelled in the Guinness PRO14 in both the tight and the loose, and won a well-deserved call up to the Ireland senior squad earlier this year.
- Tom O’Toole, Ulster
O’Toole just sees off the challenge of Leinster’s Jack Aungier here, and for the most part that is due to his increased experience at the senior level so far. The sizeable 21-year-old already has a significant amount of appearances for Ulster to his name and though neither Tadhg Furlong or Andrew Porter is going anywhere anytime soon, O’Toole will soon add enviable depth and competition to the position for Ireland.
- James Ryan, Leinster
Does this selection even need explanation? Ryan’s rise to becoming one of the best locks in the world is well-known at this point and he is set to remain there for plenty of seasons to come. The British and Irish Lions will be his next challenge.
- Fineen Wycherley, Munster
We’ve opted for Wycherley here and is fully deserving of the spot, though there is significant competition coming from his teammate Thomas Ahern and Leinster’s Ryan Baird. Between this trio, Ireland’s lock stocks are looking in particularly fine fettle moving forward and the competition for spots will be intense, not least so because Iain Henderson, Jean Kleyn and Ultan Dillane still have a number of seasons left in them.
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- Max Deegan, Leinster
Munster’s Gavin Coombes or Connacht’s Cillian Gallagher would also be good options here, though we have moved over Deegan from his customary No 8 spot as he is too good to leave out of this XV. It’s a position Deegan looks comfortable in, too, and the added ball-carrying he would bring to the position is something that very few coaches would pass up.
- Scott Penny, Leinster
Penny looks to the manor born in his fleeting appearances at the senior level so far and consequently squeezes in ahead of Paul Boyle and Will Connors. He was a part of the Ireland U20 Grand Slam-winning side in 2019 and is the epitome of a mobile and dominant breakdown openside flanker. It seems as though injuries, just as they have with Dan Leavy, are the only thing that can hold Penny back.
- Caelan Doris, Leinster
Leinster’s prolific run producing No 8s continues apace with Doris, who comes off the back of Deegan, Jack Conan and Jamie Heaslip also making their way through that pathway. Doris has made his senior international debut already and has the potential to emulate Heaslip over the coming years, though honourable mentions are due for Munster’s John Hodnett and Ulster’s Azur Allison, two players who could be pushing Doris in the years to come.
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