Gordon D’Arcy: Six Nations a step too far for young guns
We will all be trying to read Joe Schmidt’s mind and all of us will probably get it wrong
“We can’t afford to just throw Josh van der Flier (above), Gary Ringrose, Ulster centre Stuart McCloskey and promising Munster flanker Jack O’Donoghue into the Test match arena.” Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Talent will never be enough on its own. What characteristics are needed to make it as a professional rugby player? Bravery, naturally, and certain physical attributes that must be developed over time.
Hence the drip-feeding, until last Saturday night at the RDS, of academy graduates into the Leinster XV.
That’s what being a good coach is all about: knowing when to stick or twist.
I could see over the past two years the physical strength of guys coming out of the academy – 20-year-olds on conditioning programmes for five, six years.
Then you train with them and realise for all their raw ability, they are not quite ready to survive against the nuanced power of Ma’a Nonu, Manu Tuilagi, and Mathieu Bastareaud, or wily centres like Conrad Smith and Wesley Fofana.
It’s not just about size and pace, experience is invaluable. But it’s about having the mental capacity to perform when your opportunity arises.
The guys who make it, the players who last (presuming they avoid serious injury), have a temperament and resilience you don’t come across in everyday life.
On Saturday night when Ross Molony stooped over the grounded Bath player to earn that penalty in the 75th minute, his man of the match award was secure along with the victory, but his hunger to make an impact, to dominate, made it look like the first minute.
Joe Schmidt played young players for Leinster as soon as they started presenting enough evidence that they were ready to cope.
But a guy’s character is always part of the selection process.
Bad injuriesEoin O’Malley is an obvious example. Due to some bad injuries, Eoin was only a Leinster senior player for four seasons, but Joe didn’t waste time putting him into the midfield, even when myself and Brian were available, because he had confidence that Eoin’s ability and temperament would be enough to prevail in the most intimidating environment a rugby player can imagine.
He proved it down in Clermont and would have gone on to prove it for Ireland if a bad knee injury hadn’t curtailed a hugely promising career.
That’s what we saw from all six players making their European debut on Saturday night against Bath (who most certainly didn’t see it coming).
I got my first Leinster start because Denis Hickie was injured. There will come a point in every rugby player’s career when they are given a chance in a big enough game.
It’s not necessarily a make-or-break situation, as the coach doesn’t want to heap that sort of pressure on young shoulders.
Just let him know he is being rewarded for his form and work ethic. Fill him with confidence and send him out to play what he sees.
Execution was top-notch. Nobody seemed too worried about making a mistake. Everyone trusted their skill set and looked to attack. They took their opportunity without fear of failure (which can cripple a player of any age).
You could see it in the body language of all six players and it energised the entire team. That will carry that into training this week and throughout the Six Nations when the internationals are away.
If you run out onto the field knowing you are good enough to be there, but also thinking it could be your last time wearing the blue jersey, you can end up playing 200 times for your province. That mentality served me well, anyway (maybe not the first 50-odd caps, but certainly the 200 that followed).
Rugby, essentially, is a battle of momentum. Bath could have won Saturday’s game if, say, Leroy Houston got to Jonathan Joseph’s grubber before Dave Kearney.
Virtuous circleDave’s gasket-blowing sprint into the dead-ball area meant Leinster held on to the initiative. That and a solid set piece kept their virtuous circle intact. The crowd fed into this. The young guys would have felt this.
Wasps away on Saturday is another interesting challenge for Cullen and the players, as Leinster are already eliminated, yet everything hinges on victory for Wasps.
Leo will be keen to maintain established performance levels since Christmas. A few players will come back in and will be keen to find form before the Six Nations, knowing that Joe Schmidt is watching closely.
But all this can be seen as a confidence boost for both Ireland and Leinster. The levels of competition are massive now.
Form improvesIan was really impressive against Bath. He’s a better player now. I’ve seen this before; a player signs a new contract, sorts out his future and is finally able to untangle the incessant jabbering about money from his brain. Instantly his form improves.
Mads is turning into the player so many of us always hoped he would become. His performance along with other younger players puts pressure on Sexton, Jamie Heaslip, Seán O’Brien, Seán Cronin, Rob Kearney and Jack McGrath to perform.
But those players crave this exact environment. We already saw that in the second half, especially Cronin’s manic yet controlled display, while O’Brien seemed to be battling Josh van der Flier as much as the Bath backrow to turn over possession.
The senior players will be pleased with the result, but they will each look at the individual in their position and know they have to do better. * * * The Six Nations squad is out today. Joe is not a conservative coach, never has been, but it won’t be an overhaul on the scale we are seeing with Eddie Jones in England. It doesn’t need to be either.
I’m writing about competitive animals in Leinster, but Joe is the same.
Michael Cheika says he hates losing more than he loves winning. Joe wins so many games I’d say losing feels unnatural to him.
Even though recent provincial results will have them loving their jobs again, some Ireland players will still be hurting from the World Cup.
This might only register when they come back into camp or pull on that green jersey or when something goes wrong against Wales.
The Six Nations still matters to the IRFU more than anything else.
This will always be a top-down business model. The full house at the Aviva stadium for internationals remains the cash cow that drives the entire system and generates sponsors. That and winning.
So I don’t expect the Leinster team we saw on Saturday night to be fast-tracked. We can’t afford to just throw Garry Ringrose, van der Flier or Ulster centre Stuart McCloskey and promising Munster flanker Jack O’Donoghue into the Test match arena.
There remains a clear pecking order, so they must get their exposure elsewhere.
I do expect to see new faces, all or some of the above, in the training squad, but the tone for 2016 must be set by those who take the field against Wales.
I see one new cap, maybe two if injuries don’t clear up. Certainly not three or four.
I don’t like dampening expectations, but the leap from European club rugby to the Six Nations is a chasm.
The pace and physicality can shock the system of an average player to a standstill.
In 12 months’ time, hopefully four or five players will have six more Champions Cup games under their belt, while being notably bigger men, and will have consistently shown the form that warrants promotion.
Just not yet.
Ringrose could keep soaring and van der Flier already looks capable of physically holding his own at the next level. Tadhg Furlong isn’t far off either.
But they all remain an injury or two away from starting for Ireland.
Most players hit their rugby-playing peak in line with physical maturity, which is from 24 to 29. I played my best rugby between 2004 and 2009, unquestionably: that was my attacking peak.
From 2009 onwards I needed to reinvent myself or I knew I would disappear underneath the articulated lorries coming down my channel.
My tackle technique and remaining in sync with a similar-sized outside centre was essential.
This weekend’s games matter to all four Irish provinces mainly because Joe is watching.
Seed of doubtTrust me, you don’t want to plant the seed of doubt in his mind when it comes to selection. Because he is ruthless.
My international death warrant was drawn up before my eyes in November 2014. I was on the sideline, unable to train for a few days before the South Africa game, so Joe decided to just pop Jared Payne into the centre with Robbie Henshaw.
Joe sent me back to Leinster during last year’s Six Nations with a simple rationale: you are not going to learn anything here, but I want you to play games in case someone gets injured.
Nobody got injured.
That could become McCloskey’s role over the coming weeks. Unlike, the young Leinster players, he has already forced his way into the Ulster team last season, so he has plenty of games under his belt.
A big, offloading inside centre, we will see him playing rugby in February and March. Whether it’s in a white or green jersey depends on the implications of where Payne is played and if Robbie regains match sharpness.
There is also Luke Fitzgerald to consider – is he a 12, 13 or 11 now?
Joe will have the squad overthinking all these potential combinations. We will all be trying to read his mind and all of us – the media, the players, the opposition – will probably get it wrong.