Saturday 4 February 2023 Dublin: 9°C
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New faces can bring exciting energy to Joe Schmidt's Six Nations squad
The likes of Ultan Dillane, Josh van der Flier and Garry Ringrose are all exciting prospects.

JOE SCHMIDT IS set to name his Ireland training squad for the Six Nations tomorrow afternoon and though wholesale changes are extremely unlikely, there are a handful of exciting uncapped players who have caught the eye this season.

The likes of James Cronin and Kieran Marmion, both already capped, could help to bring a sense of renewal to the Ireland group, but here we are concerned with some of the players who have yet to get a taste of international rugby.

Having won back-to-back Six Nations titles, Schmidt will have felt a sense of loyalty to the men who delivered those honours, but the inclusion of some of the men below would bring new energy and excitement to the squad.

Stuart McCloskey

Stuart McCloskey hands off Jamie George Presseye / Andrew Fosker/INPHO Presseye / Andrew Fosker/INPHO / Andrew Fosker/INPHO

The Ulsterman looks physically and technically ready for Test rugby, with his improvement over the last two seasons having been frighteningly rapid. Given that he is a specialist inside centre, McCloskey would need to be pitched into the starting team if Schmidt is going to involve him on match days.

From the 12 shirt, McCloskey provides a steady stream of gainline progress, excellent footwork, an offloading ability and ever-improving passing and kicking games. His choke tackling ability is an additional strength.

Now 23, the thought of the Ulster midfielder being paired with Robbie Henshaw is an exciting one. That would provide Ireland with a large, explosive and skillful duo in the centre, although Luke Fitzgerald, Jared Payne and Garry Ringrose are also options.

CJ Stander

CJ Stander celebrates Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

The Munster man simply has to be involved at this stage, such is his lengthy run of form at number eight for his province. An outstanding ball carrier since his arrival in Ireland from South Africa, Stander has worked hard to round out his game under the tutelage of Anthony Foley.

Though Jamie Heaslip’s ruck work, breakdown skills, set-piece contributions and control at the back of the scrum arguably remain ahead of Stander’s, the 25-year-old is swiftly closing the gap. For the first time in what seems like many years, Heaslip has genuine competition.

There is also the possibility of Stander slotting in on the blindside flank with Heaslip and Sean O’Brien. Schmidt might prefer to use Stander as an impact sub against a powerful Welsh team on 7 February, with Rhys Ruddock at six.

Whatever the case, it’s an exciting time for Stander and his many fans.

Garry Ringrose

Garry Ringrose is tackled by Matt Banahan Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

Last weekend was the Leinster man’s first start in a European game, underlining the relative lack of experience the 20-year-old has in senior rugby. Nonetheless, his potential and current ability are thrilling for the province’s supporters and all Irish rugby fans.

Possessing razor-sharp footwork, a pure burst of acceleration, excellent handling skills, defensive doggedness and the kind of rugby intellect that is rare, Ringrose is certainly a player worth getting excited about in terms of Ireland’s future in midfield.

For some, there is no need to wait with Ringrose. Many feel he is ready to step up to international level, and the impression is of a player who can lift himself with each new raising of the standard.

Ringrose turns 21 next week and having been involved with Ireland’s senior squad training previously, there is no reason the former World U20 player of the year nominee should not be present at Carton House again in the coming months.

Ultan Dillane

Luke Marshall and Ultan Dillane James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

The second row is a clear area of concern for Schmidt coming into this Six Nations campaign, with the loss of Paul O’Connell looming large over this group. The hamstring injury to his apparent heir, Iain Henderson, could not have been worse timed.

It leaves Devin Toner seemingly nailed on as a starter, while his Leinster teammate Mike McCarthy has been perhaps the most in-form lock in the country this season. Dave Foley and Donnacha Ryan of Munster are contenders too, but form and fitness are not quite on their side to the same degree.

Connacht man Ultan Dillane was a surprise call up to the training camp at Carton House after Christmas, although his superb form under Pat Lam meant it was fully warranted. Still only 22, the 6’6″ lock is a supreme athlete and his skill level is hugely impressive.

Including Dillane in his squad tomorrow and maybe even on match day at some stage during the championship would be an investment by Schmidt in a hugely-promising player.

Another Connacht man who has earned a shot under Schmidt is loosehead prop Denis Buckley, who was in excellent form before an ankle injury struck. He made his return off the bench last weekend away to Brive and will hope that his period on the sidelines hasn’t counted against him.

Buckley was not involved at Carton House when Dillane made the trip to Maynooth, whereas other injured players were, and may have to bide his time. Senior international caps will surely come for the 25-year-old.

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Josh van der Flier

Josh Van Der Flier Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

Leinster’s 22-year-old openside already appears to be something of a veteran within his provincial set-up, his maturity shining through in a spectacular breakthrough season under Leo Cullen.

The former Wesley College student is a crafty breakdown competitor, consistently slowing opposition ball when he can’t win a clean turnover. His carrying game is direct and aggressive, while he brings huge work rate defensively.

Ireland’s back row depth, only increased by Stander, may count against van der Flier, but he is the most exciting openside prospect to come through in Irish rugby for some years. He looks like a young man who was born to play with a seven shirt on his back.

Again, being pitched directly into a Six Nations game might be a step too far for van der Flier, but his inclusion in Ireland’s training squad would allow him to bring the same energy and ambition that he has delivered in Leinster.

Luke McGrath

Luke McGrath Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

Another man who got his first European start last weekend, the 22-year-old scrum-half has moved to a new level of performance this season. He looks like he should be Cullen’s first-choice nine moving forward, while his international prospects grow.

Having improved the consistency of his passing and defensive positioning, McGrath is now looking like the player many predicted the former Ireland U20 captain would be. The pace of his delivery is rapid, while his sniping game is also clever.

McGrath was involved in Ireland’s training camp over the festive period, but Eoin Reddan, Isaac Boss and Marmion all have greater experience at international level.

Conor Murray remains the first choice under Schmidt, but bringing Marmion and McGrath up the pecking order would be another way for Schmidt to continue planning for the future.

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