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Emergence of thrilling next generation a huge Six Nations success for Schmidt

Irish rugby looks like it will be in fine health long after today’s Grand Slam shot.

LAST WEEKEND AGAINST Scotland, James Ryan made a team-leading 15 carries for Ireland, eking out an average gain of 1.5 metres per carry.

While he was up at 1.8m per carry against France and reached 1.9m per carry against the Welsh, it was still another impressive performance from the 21-year-old lock in getting through the often thankless task of close-in surges at the defence.

As well as carrying more than any other Irish player last weekend against the Scots, Ryan hit 37 rucks – second only to captain Rory Best.

James Ryan Ryan's physical impact for Ireland has been superb. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

There was one stunning dominant clearout of Ryan Wilson in the first half to prevent a probable turnover, as well as a whole lot of other effective rucking actions in his performance.

Throw in his joint-top 14 tackles – many of them featuring his already distinctive sharp technique - and the scale of this physical performance from Ryan begins to make itself clear. But it doesn’t end there.

There were 16 scrums in this game and despite his youth, Ryan is already Ireland’s tighthead lock – lining up in the second row behind the tighthead prop in a position that is commonly accepted as deeply fatiguing and where power and endurance is essential.

Ryan won three clean lineouts for Ireland, while he lifted twice and also contributed powerfully to some of the key mauls for Joe Schmidt’s side, most impressively for Sean Cronin’s bonus-point clinching try.

Paul O’Connell always said that the second row is a work-rate position and these numbers alone – without taking into account the quality behind them – show that Ryan offers that key attribute in bucketloads when the game gives him opportunity to do so.

A key moment to consider too – Ryan’s offload after taking a Scottish overthrow at the tail late in the first half. His skill level in contact allowed Ireland to recycle quickly from a Rory Best carry, from where Johnny Sexton’s wide pass found Garry Ringrose to tip-on delightfully to Rob Kearney, who broke deep into the Scotland 22.

From the scrum that followed after Bundee Aki was held up, Ireland scored with a superb power play – Ryan scrummaging hard at tighthead lock before coming around the corner for a solid carry to set up the scoring phase.

Now, Ryan did turn possession over twice – first, a basic handling error and then at the breakdown when he decided to pick and go without support – but these were minor kinks in his latest seriously impressive performance for Ireland.

It’s little surprise then that Ryan is now Ireland’s first-choice lock despite having just seven Test caps and having only played nine senior games for his province, Leinster.

Joe Schmidt Schmidt has overseen notable development in his squad. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

While Ryan has been ripping it up in the second row, Ulsterman Jacob Stockdale – also just 21 – has been breaking records out on the left wing.

On the Ireland bench as they go for a Grand Slam against England today will be 22-year-old tighthead prop Andrew Porter, who was excellent against Wales and Italy.

Porter, Stockdale and Ryan all helped the Ireland U20s into a World Rugby U20 Championship final in 2016, with the lock captaining that team, and their rise through the system since has been superbly planned.

The idea to shift Porter from loosehead to tighthead has been a masterstroke and underlines how key the provinces are to Ireland’s success. Mike Ross and John Fogarty played key roles as Leinster appreciated that Porter had the greatest upside for Irish rugby at tighthead.

20-year-old Jordan Larmour, whose exposure has been relatively limited in this Six Nations, is also on the Irish bench today and he will hope to help Schmidt’s side secure a Grand Slam as he wins just his third cap. The feeling is that his real impact is still to come.

Bundee Aki is 27 but he too is a Six Nations newcomer and deserves a mention here. We haven’t really seen the Connacht centre make big linebreaks and sharp offloads. Instead, Aki has adapted to his roles within Schmidt’s demands superbly – offering a subtle but crucial influence and maturely making life easier for those around him.

Returning to the youth, 23-year-old Dan Leavy at openside flanker will win just his ninth cap for Ireland today, but he too has stood out as a key man in this Six Nations after the injury to Josh van der Flier against France.

Garry Ringrose is also just 23 and returned from injury against Scotland last weekend to provide defensive intelligence and attacking cutting edge after Robbie Henshaw and then Chris Farrell had been cruelly cut down at outside centre.

While the experience of the likes of Rory Best, Johnny Sexton, Rob Kearney, Cian Healy, Peter O’Mahony and Conor Murray has been even more vital to Ireland, of course, the role this crop of young players has played in Ireland’s Six Nations success shouldn’t be understated.

Jacob Stockdale Stockdale has been a try-scoring menace on the wing for Ireland. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

The emergence of these impressive youngsters is exciting for Irish rugby with a view further down the line to next year’s World Cup, and it is also payback for the work Schmidt and the IRFU have put into building the depth.

Players like Ryan and Stockdale don’t just pop up as starters by accident.

They were flagged as exceptional talents from early on – Ulster realising what they had on their hands in Stockdale’s final year of school at Wallace High. The wing played two years of Ireland U20s rugby – accelerating his progress by going in a year young in 2015.

A number of years ago, Schmidt sent word down the pipeline that he was looking for extremely athletic locks. Ryan was the answer to the request and he was nurtured intelligently by St. Michael’s College and Leinster before it was clear that he was too good to hold back any longer – he went on Ireland’s tour of the US and Japan last summer even without having been capped by his province yet.

That slightly under-the-radar tour was one that Schmidt preached the importance of to anyone who was willing to listen, but it’s clear now just how crucial it was to Ireland’s development, with the likes of Stockdale, Ryan and Leavy all starting Tests during it.

It’s worth noting that Schmidt has handed out 33 Ireland debuts since the 2015 World Cup – a campaign that came crashing down when they lost five key players for the quarter-final against Argentina.

To be clear, if Ireland were to lose five key players today – say, Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray, Tadhg Furlong, CJ Stander and Keith Earls – there’s no guarantee they wouldn’t underperform to a similar extent.

But Schmidt would probably back Ireland to make a better fist of it now and certainly by the time the 2019 World Cup comes, it looks like things will be in a healthy state.

Whether Ireland win or lose today, the continued emergence of this new generation of young players – who possess not only further potential but the ability to make an impact now – in this Six Nations-winning campaign has been a heartening positive for Schmidt.

The young guns could just set a Grand Slam standard for themselves in Twickenham.

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Murray Kinsella

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