19-year-old James Culhane impresses in Emerging Ireland back row

The Leinster academy man scored two tries in a narrow Irish victory over the Pumas.

James Culhane impressed for Emerging Ireland.
James Culhane impressed for Emerging Ireland.
Image: Steve Haag/INPHO

2022 HAD ALREADY been a very good year for James Culhane, who was named Player of the Championship after helping the Ireland U20s to their Grand Slam in the Six Nations.

The powerful back row missed out on the Summer Series due to injury but he secured his spot in the Leinster academy and was probably looking forward to getting stuck into some AIL action with UCD at this stage of the season.

Then up popped the Emerging Ireland tour of South Africa. Culhane, who hails from Enniskerry in Wicklow, might not initially have expected to be involved in the trip. It was flagged that the Irish squad would include lots of inexperienced players, but few would have predicted the inclusion of a 19-year-old.

That said, Culhane is a young man who plays with an impact and maturity beyond his years. His performance in today’s 28-24 win against the Pumas was excellent, full of dynamic contributions that illustrated his status as a leader by example.

Culhane scored a nice try in the first half from a clever five-metre tap play by Emerging Ireland, the same play that Leicester Tigers used in last season’s Premiership final and that the senior Ireland team tried against the All Blacks during the summer. Culhane’s power was evident as he surged back into the shortside and over the tryline.

He dotted down in the second half too, finishing a brilliant bit of Ireland attack after offloads from the impressive Cormac Izuchukwu and lively Chay Mullins. 

Away from his try-scoring, Culhane showed a rounded skillset. He shipped a massive hit in the first half after playing one link pass out the back. The Irish number eight’s effort to stay square and pass at the last possible moment left him exposed and his ribs felt the impact from Pumas lock Malembe Mpofu.

james-culhane-and-tim-brown Culhane shone for the Ireland U20s earlier this year. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Culhane’s ball-carrying was excellent and he worked hard defensively and at the set-piece too in what was a balanced performance in the green number eight jersey.

A product of De La Salle Palmerston FC and Blackrock College, Culhane is in Year 1 of the Leinster academy with a whole host of brilliant back rows ahead of him in the province’s depth chart. There is lots of hard work to do in the next few years, but his talent is clear and this outing against the Pumas was a very good one for him. 

There were a few other eye-catching Irish displays in what proved to be a much better contest than last Friday’s hammering of the Griquas.

Munster centre Antoine Frisch showed up energetically and showed his slightly unorthodox skillset. He’s not a young player at 26 but it seems clear that he still has lots of growth as a player ahead of him. Frisch is one to watch.

Ulster lock Izuchukwu was another who underlined that he can offer something different to go along with the grunt work in the second row alongside the impressive Brian Deeny, while Munster tighthead Roman Salonoa was punchy in contact and had a couple of nice moments of handling.

Leinster’s Andrew Smith was combative on the left wing, while Connacht fullback Mullins was always looking to get involved in the game.

In the back row along with Culhane, the more established talents of captain Cian Prendergast and the indomitable Scott Penny were unsurprisingly impactful. 

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cormac-izuchukwu-on-the-attack Cormac Izuchukwu was good in Ireland's second row. Source: Steve Haag/INPHO

The Irish coaches will surely have welcomed the fact that the Pumas were so competitive after a very poor start that allowed the tourists to race into a big lead. The South Africans muscled up thereafter to put real pressure on the Emerging Ireland players, forcing plenty of errors from them.

It’s never fun to watch your maul getting marched back over your own tryline, but this was more like the physical experience at altitude that the IRFU would have hoped for when putting this tour together at the last minute. To see the Irish attack flourishing again was very pleasing for Mike Catt. There were times when the Emerging side looked very like the senior Ireland team. Culhane’s second try was a stunning team score.

The shame of this game is that it just dragged on and on and on. The first half took a whopping 58 minutes to complete due to two interminable TMO exchanges, a few injuries, and the new water breaks.

Matches that take nearly two hours to complete are just not a great look and this is something for rugby to sharpen up as soon as possible.

For Emerging Ireland, it’s on to the Cheetahs on Sunday.

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Murray Kinsella

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