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John O'Sullivan: Ireland’s young stars being starved of priceless minutes

The long-term absence of AIL means chances are at a premium for provincial prospects

Ulster’s Ethan McIlroy has been one of the younger players to grasp his opportunity this season. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

A direct correlation to the development of young players can be traced to matches. Gym, training sessions and skills work are important too, but there is no substitute for the proving ground of the competitive environment. It’s a forum for the practical application of a learning process.

There are other supplementary considerations that centre on the quality and regularity of the games. This season the Irish provinces have been primarily engaged in three tournaments: abbreviated versions of the Pro14, Champions Cup (Ulster and Connacht also played in the Challenge Cup) and Rainbow Cup during which they will have used in excess of 50 players apiece.

The majority of the international and academy players, the top and bottom ends of the playing roster, are lightly raced, relatively speaking, compared to a central core. When everyone is in situ and available for selection, the academy players find access to matches harder to source.

In pre-pandemic times the All-Ireland League (AIL) provided a valuable competitive outlet for some of the younger players, but that’s no longer available. The most recent round of fixtures in the AIL Division 1A took place on February 29th, 2020, just over 14 months ago. The A interprovincial series has been useful if limited as it is still a couple of notches below the Pro14 standard.


There were 66 players across the Leinster (18), Munster (17), Connacht (16), and Ulster (15) academies at one point this season, but only 13 (19.7 per cent) have played five matches or more for the respective senior teams in the three competitions listed above – although a sizeable tranche will graduate to senior contracts next season.


There are a number of players who have grasped the opportunities presented in the current campaign in a very positive manner. Ulster’s gifted wing-cum-fullback Ethan McIlroy leads the way in terms of appearances in the run-on team (eight) and in match minutes (782), having made his first start for the province last November following on from a senior debut in December 2019 while still in the sub academy.

A member of the unbeaten Ireland Under-20 team in the 2020 Six Nations – Noel McNamara’s side won all three matches against Wales, Scotland and England – before the tournament was suspended and subsequently cancelled due to Covid-19, the 20-year-old is an exciting prospect, quick, possessing sharp footwork, excellent aerially and, at 6ft 2in, offering a physical presence on both sides of the ball.

Munster outhalf Ben Healy has played in more games (16) this season than any other provincial academy prospect. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

His academy team-mate who was initially part of the Ireland Sevens programme, Cormac Izuchukwu, made a very promising start to his senior career before an unfortunate knee injury ended his season.

Munster outhalf Ben Healy has played in more games (16) this season than any other provincial academy prospect, while his fellow U-20s Grand Slam winner, prop Josh Wycherley, has also amassed a fine body of work.

Thomas Ahern, who played alongside McIlroy for the national age-grade side, is rehabilitating after a knee injury that deprived him of further match minutes for Munster so far this season. Nine of the Munster academy, who will come under the direction of Ian Costello after the summer, will graduate to senior contracts next season.

Bulk suppliers

The fact that Leinster are currently bulk suppliers to the Ireland squad means leaning a little heavier on their academy players. The 21-year-old tighthead prop Thomas Clarkson, loosehead Michael Milne (21), outhalf/centre David Hawkshaw (21) and centre/wing Liam Turner (21), all members of the Irish 20s Grand Slam side of 2019, all garnered Pro14 experience, while impressive fullback/wing Max O’Reilly (21), a first year, has racked up the most starts (six) of the group in question.

Maintaining the theme of the Irish 20s Grand Slam winners is Athlone-born secondrow Niall Murray – he only took up rugby at 16 – who has made considerable strides in a short space of time. The other two Connacht players to qualify for the list are secondrow/flanker Cian Prendergast and centre/wing Sean O’Brien, both of whom moved to Galway from Leinster.

Prendergast has quickly demonstrated his capacity to excel, but arguably the most striking body of work in the last few months has been compiled by O’Brien, young brother of Leinster centre Conor.

In the absence of Tom Farrell due to a long-term injury and Ireland and Lions centre Bundee Aki, O’Brien has started the last five matches alongside Tom Daly in the Connacht midfield; he’s flourished under the responsibility and won’t be handing over the jersey by rote based on performance.

His time playing with Clontarf in the AIL Division 1A – it’s the same for many listed – was invaluable in accelerating that development. The sooner it resumes the better it will be for young players, clubs and the provinces.

The Under-20 Six Nations next month offers a handful the prospect of further game time, so too the Ireland Sevens programme ahead of the Olympic qualifier in Monaco, but regular, high-quality game time has to be the goal.