THIS TIME LAST year, some people might have scoffed at the suggestion that James Ryan would become one of Ireland’s most important players over the next 12 months.
So it proved, though, as the Leinster lock delivered consistently superb performances for the national team to help them towards a November clean sweep, the Grand Slam, and a series success in Australia.
James Ryans don’t grow on trees but his emergence for Ireland – or those of Dan Leavy and Jordan Larmour, as other examples – is proof that things can change rapidly in this game.
The ‘four-year World Cup cycle’ is a well-established trope in rugby and it’s obvious that detailed planning is a major part of Joe Schmidt and every other Test coach’s job.
And yet, even with much of his World Cup squad already set in stone 13 months out from the tournament, Schmidt is keeping his eyes open for people who could make Ireland even stronger.
Ireland’s short camp last week featured a large squad of well over 40 players, giving Schmidt scope to keep an eye on a few men who haven’t been able to break into matchday squads in the past season or so, as well as a couple of new faces.
Munster’s Irish-qualified fullback Mike Haley is now in the mix, as is Ulster’s versatile back Will Addison, who trained with Ireland in Australia.
Last week’s camp saw Connacht’s Gavin Thornbury, Denis Buckley, Niyi Adeolokun and Finlay Bealham [the last two are already capped] attending alongside regulars Bundee Aki, Kieran Marmion, Quinn Roux and Ultan Dillane.
Thornbury’s involvement is particularly interesting and he is a fine player who is still discovering his true potential at the age of 24.
He was playing for Wanganui in the Heartland Championship as recently as 2016 following injury troubles during his time with Leinster, but he returned to Ireland and joined Connacht in April 2017 before impressing last season.
Thornbury may remain a long shot for the World Cup, but his involvement with Ireland shows that Schmidt is still willing to take a look outside his squad stalwarts.
“Absolutely, hugely,” said Schmidt when asked if there is still room for a World Cup bolter.
“There were guys in camp who are right in the middle of our sights but they either hadn’t been in for a while and weren’t fully fit or we wanted to get a couple of younger guys in, like a Gav Thornbury, just to find out a little bit more about Gav and just to say ‘Gav, don’t think that you’re not on the radar.’
“There’s a lot of guys on the radar because we tend to have new guys every single season and the proof is in the pudding of looking back in the last three years.
“With it being a year leading into a World Cup and the number of players who have been capped in the last three years, there’s probably less scope for it but there’s certainly scope.”
Having eight players at an Ireland camp was encouraging for Connacht, and propping pair Bealham and Buckley – so consistently good for his province – will have been pleased to be back involved.
“Two years ago, Finlay was at Soldier Field [when Ireland beat the All Blacks] and since then Andrew Porter and John Ryan have probably pushed in,” said Schmidt, who attended the Connacht Rugby Club & Community season launch on Saturday.
“Marty Moore is back in Ulster and looking in pretty good shape. He wasn’t in camp but there’s good competition in behind Tadhg [Furlong] and it will keep Tadhg kicking on as well.
“Denis trained really well. When you’ve got Cian Healy and Jack McGrath there, they’re quite hard to get past. They’re both Lions-quality players so it’s a big challenge for Denis, as it is for Dave Kilcoyne who was in the matchday 23 in November last year.”
Schmidt was pleased with how last week’s camp went as Ireland gear up for a busy season.
The Ireland boss name-checked Munster’s Chris Farrell and Leinster pair Sean O’Brien and Josh van der Flier as being among a group of players making positive progress in recovering from injuries, with Schmidt hopeful they can increase his options soon.
While Ireland will be looking to defend their Grand Slam later this season, they have a busy November series to enjoy first, starting with Italy in Chicago before Argentina come to Dublin.
A week later, it’s one of the most-anticipated Tests of the season, the visit of the All Blacks, who delivered a superb second-half performance to beat the Wallabies last weekend in the Rugby Championship.
“I only got a glance because I was doing a presentation earlier, so I didn’t see the whole game, but that puts a context on things,” said Schmidt.
“I think the Wallabies were missing a few in their front row, they lost seven lineouts, which they didn’t manage against us, but if you give the All Blacks those kinds of resources they’re going to hurt you.
“I saw a few highlights on the way here. Waisake Naholo looked pretty good and Brodie Retallick running in from 30 metres out – that’s going to be a challenge for James Ryan, Dev Toner, Iain Henderson, to see if they can run 30 metres, throw a dummy and get over the tryline.
“The expectation short-term, we’ll have a look at Italy and Argentina and New Zealand and finish off with the USA.
“That will really be a bedding-in time for us. We got the luxury last year of doing something similar in the autumn series, to fine-tune what we were going to need to do for the Six Nations and, hopefully, we can do something similar again.”
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