McCloskey, van der Flier and Dillane breathe new life into Schmidt's Ireland

‘Three quiet fellas but three fellas who have been taking it in their stride.’

SUDDENLY, THE WIDESPREAD excitement around Ireland has returned and it’s largely down to three men, or four if you include Joe Schmidt for picking Josh van der Flier, Stuart McCloskey and Ultan Dillane in his matchday 23 to face England.

Jonathan Sexton and Stuart McCloskey Johnny Sexton with McCloskey at Carton House. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

There are few things as thrilling for rugby fans as the prospect of seeing talented youngsters making their Test debuts. We can just about double that feeling when we factor in that this clash takes place at Twickenham in the middle Six Nations.

Injuries have forced Schmidt’s hand of course, but this weekend is truly special for the fact that van der Flier, McCloskey and, presumably, Dillane won’t be making their debuts in a low-key November Test or against Italy.

Tomorrow will be full blooded and brutal. England against Ireland in London is always that way, and a large part of the fascination is in seeing how these three prodigious talents cope.

Certainly the strand that links 22-year-old van der Flier, 23-year-old McCloskey and 22-year-old Dillane is their athletic prowess. All three possess power and durability that are perhaps not common for players of their age.

Schmidt believes they can physically cope, and McCloskey may even do more than that if his performances for Ulster in the Champions Cup are anything to go by.

“Look at the size of Stu, he’s 17 stone,” says Ireland wing Keith Earls. “Josh is the kind of of guy who’ll rip a ball off you all day. I was doing a couple of tackling bags with Ultan there and it was like hitting a bull. The weight of him.

“I said it to John [Sexton], ‘How heavy is that fella?’ Normally you might drive him back a bit but it was just, bang, stop! They’re three physical guys, so hopefully they can do a job on Saturday.”

Ultan Dillane Dillane has made an impact at Ireland training. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

All three uncapped players have hugely impressive skill sets too, with Dillane arguably the premier passing lock in the country at present. His handling improvement typifies the good work being done in Connacht under Nigel Carolan, Dave Ellis and Andre Bell.

This trio if Irishmen are not robotic specimens; each of them has shown awareness and intelligence in their provincial performances this season.

McCloskey uses his footwork as much as his bulk to bust the line, van der Flier picks superb lines in his support play, while Dillane appreciates where space is on the pitch and can deliver the ball there too.

Naturally enough, none of them are imposing personalities off the pitch at Carton House just yet, but they have impressed with their confidence on the training paddock.

“Three quiet fellas, but three fellas who have been taking it in their stride,” says Earls. “I don’t think there’s any fear there. They’re too young to know what fear or pressure is.

“Chatting to Stu on the field, he’s demanding what he likes. Obviously the boys in the forwards would be working more closely with him, but he’s demanding what he likes. He’s been great, he’s had a phenomenal season. I think all three of them have had a phenomenal season. Hopefully it can keep going.”

Josh van der Flier Van der Flier has no fear of playing in Twickenham. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

That fearlessness is what has struck Schmidt and his more established players most about van der Flier, McCloskey and Dillane.

The Connacht and Leinster men are in just their second seasons of senior rugby, while McCloskey first played for Ulster in the 2013/14 campaign. Yet none of them have shown signs of nerves or being intimidated yet within the Ireland set-up.

“There definitely is a difference,” says Earls of this new crop of young Irish players. “You mightn’t have seen it with me, but I was always tormenting myself in my own head.

“They just come in as cool as a breeze, taking it all in their stride. I would have loved to have been like that at their age. They’re doing a lot of nice touches and great plays in training.”

Training at Carton House and Mullingar are very different things to taking on a large England side at Twickenham of course, but this trio of new Ireland internationals appear to be custom-built for the task at hand.

Tomorrow looks like the beginning of long Ireland careers for caps number 1072, 1073 and 1074.

‘He works his absolute arse off’: Ross out to help Van der Flier make a debut to remember

Debut for Bangor Bulldozer, JVDF and more talking points from Ireland’s team

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