WHEN THE OUTSTANDING Caelan Doris was ruled out of the U20 Six Nations with a hamstring tear, Ireland fans could have been forgiven for letting out a long sigh of despair.
The number eight was perhaps Ireland’s best player in the 2017 championship – still a year young – and was expected to be the key man for Noel McNamara’s team in the current Six Nations.
And yet, while Ireland would certainly prefer to have had Doris fit, the man who has stepped into the number eight jersey in his absence has been their best player this year.
UCC and Munster man Jack O’Sullivan has earned two man-of-the-match awards in the last two games against Wales and Scotland, scoring two tries in each of those wins for Ireland.
Aside from his ability to get over the tryline, O’Sullivan’s footwork has been hugely impressive, his ability to jackal for turnovers has stood out and his general energy has been influential in all departments for Ireland.
O’Sullivan, a product of Presentation Brothers College, Cork, has been on the underage radar for some time now but the extent to which he has seized the opportunity has been stunning nonetheless.
“There’s a great clip of him in a JCT final for Pres, making a cover tackle in the corner on the Crescent winger to win the game for them [from 59:55 here],” said Ireland U20s head coach McNamara.
“He is a guy who has probably found his feet really well this year. He would have played Irish Schools a year young and the second year wasn’t involved. He is somebody who has been on the radar and who has done some really, really good things.
“The thing you’ve got to say is the consistency of performance is the biggest thing for him now. He has taken his opportunity. He has been a huge bonus for us.”
While Doris has missed this Six Nations in its entirety, McNamara confirmed that the Leinster man will be back before this summer’s World Rugby U20 Championship in France.
McNamara points out that there are many other fine back rows at Ireland’s disposal but when it comes to O’Sullivan and Doris, he says ”we would love to have that headache of trying to find a way of getting the two of them in together.”
The number eight shirt is the prime example of the U20s side having a degree of depth, but tighthead is certainly another.
Leinster’s mobile Jack Aungier started the opening three games of the competition and showed his quality, before Ulster’s Tom O’Toole came into the number three shirt for the Scotland game and shone too.
The fact that Ireland have two excellent options at tighthead at U20 level is certainly a positive sign that the IRFU’s pathway is doing a good job in identifying and moulding promising talent.
“I suppose that has been one of the real positives,” said McNamara. “I think the key thing in the Irish pathway is that it is about improving players.
“The reality is, we don’t have 10 tightheads and you can’t just keep going down through them. We have the players that we have and they have been on the pathway.
“It’s about continuously developing them and exposing them to the opportunities. That was the idea behind Tom’s selection last week. It was his opportunity and you would have to say he took it.
“It is probably a testament to Jack O’Sullivan that nobody has mentioned Caelan Doris over the course of this championship.
“It is easy to forget Caelan was probably the best number eight in last year’s championship.
“The biggest strength of the pathway here is that there are a lot of people working very hard at improving these players on a consistent basis.
“There are a lot of guys playing AIL week-in, week-out. You could pick 40 to 50 eligible players playing in the AIL from Division 1A down to 2C.
“That’s fantastic exposure for those players and testament to that part of the pathway.
“There are a number of guys playing in the B&I Cup. Tom O’Toole has played B&I this year against Scarlets at a very wet Carmarthen. He would have grown and developed from that as well.
“Jack Aungier would have scrummaged against Cardiff Blues and Doncaster. The opportunities for them to learn are there as well.
“You’ve got to look at those different elements of the pathway and say that they are definitely positive.”
While the pipeline appears to be producing players with excellent potential and ability, there is always scope for more growth.
It was, therefore, highly positive to see Donegal native Joe Dunleavy making his U20s debut against the Scots last time out – having come through the underage system at Letterkenny RFC before playing in the Ulster Bank League with City of Derry.
Donegal is certainly not renowned as a hotbed for producing rugby talent, and it would be encouraging to see more players like Dunleavy emerging from other counties that have not steadily produced international players.
“You are definitely starting to pick up guys from more unusual places, in rugby terms,” says McNamara.
“West Cork seems to be a hotbed of guys coming through at underage level, for example. You can even cite [loosehead prop] James French from this year’s group from Bandon Grammar. You’ve had Gavin Coombes and Fineen Wycherley too.
“There are certainly guys coming from different places and that is a testament to the work that is being down at those levels in the clubs and the provinces.”
While the future does look promising, McNamara has more urgent matters to deal with this weekend – with the U20s’ Six Nations title hopes still alive ahead of Friday’s night’s clash with England in Coventry.
The Ireland head coach confirmed that Munster pair Dan Hurley and Craig Casey haven’t recovered from injury to feature in this game, having missed the rest of the championship.
Meanwhile, Aaron Hall has been ruled out and hooker Ronan Kelleher is also likely to be missing after injury forced him off against Scotland last weekend.