Schmidt's Ireland and the U20s look to future with exciting summer squads

Both squads will provide opportunities for younger players to shine.

THE PRO12 SEMI-finals will bring plenty of excitement this weekend, but there is nothing quite like the national team to capture the attention of the Irish rugby public.

The announcement of Joe Schmidt’s 31-man squad, soon to be 32, this week brought the tour of the US and Japan next month back into the limelight, with the inclusion of eight uncapped players naturally making the headlines.

Joe Schmidt Schmidt will be planning for the 2019 World Cup. Source: Getty/Dave Rogers/World Rugby Pool Images/INPHO

While there is a relatively experienced core in the shape of the likes of Devin Toner, Keith Earls, Cian Healy and Paddy Jackson, this does feel like something of a step into the unknown for Ireland – particularly with Rob Kearney, Sean Cronin and Jamie Heaslip absent through injury and Andrew Trimble also given the summer off to recuperate.

Leinster man James Ryan is the least experienced member of the squad and is still just 20, but there is every reason to be excited about his potential.

He has been touted as a future star for some years now, with most coaches who have worked with or watched him extensively reporting that his ceiling could be very, very high. Ryan has lots of work to do to reach that point but his fast-tracking is positive.

Andrew Porter is another with explosive potential, quite literally given reports of his eye-watering power in the gym. Most encouragingly, that physical ability is matched by sharp awareness, a fine attitude towards learning and good skills.

Ulster’s Jacob Stockdale is another player who will excite supporters. Schmidt has famous demands on back three players, but Stockdale’s attacking ability provides so many upsides.

That this Ireland squad includes three players who were stars of the U20 side last year is huge encouraging for Irish rugby, and also points to the opportunities in Georgia for another Ireland team this summer.

Under Schmidt’s watch in the US and Japan, though, the likes of Rory Scannell and Rory O’Loughlin have further promise to display.

Kieran Treadwell’s inclusion, alongside Ryan, is of particular interest with Donnacha Ryan now out of the picture and Ireland crying out for players to grab hold of their lock positions, with Toner even dropped this season.

Jacob Stockdale Ulster's Stockdale is a fine athlete, as with James Ryan and Andrew Porter. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

27-year-old John Cooney gets a shot to become a viable contender in the scrum-half pecking order, while 26-year-old Connacht man Dave Heffernan has worked extremely hard to get to this level.

Of course, these things often become about the players who don’t make the cut, rather than those who do. Adam Byrne of Leinster is very unlucky but will work on the defensive side of his game that has room for growth, while Munster’s Darren Sweetnam will continue to knock on the door.

The truth is that the players ommitted didn’t do a whole lot wrong, there were just others in their positions who did a lot right and got the nod from Schmidt. The Ireland head coach will now insist to his travelling squad that this summer represents a brilliant opportunity.

He will name a captain just before the tour gets underway, and again that represents an opportunity for whoever steps into Rory Best’s shoes.

With two Test weeks in Japan – who are the hosts and Ireland’s pool opponents – this summer is particularly important in light of the 2019 World Cup. For some of these new faces, this tour will be the first step towards becoming members of the core pool of players who will build towards the global tournament in the next two years.

For others, it may be their final involvement with Ireland if they don’t meet Schmidt’s exacting standards. Anyone viewing the trip as an end-of-season jolly is likely to be in for a rude awakening.

Development is important to Schmidt, but so is winning all three Tests.

Meanwhile, Peter Malone named his Ireland U20s squad for the Junior World Championship in Georgia yesterday and the absence of several key players was very notable.

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The Ireland team huddle The U20s trained at Birr RFC today. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Rob Lyttle, Cillian Gallagher, Tommy O’Brien, Bill Johnston, Jordan Larmour, Alex McHenry and Johnny McPhillips are all missing due to injury – so essentially an entire back three, the two frontline out-halves and one of the most influential forwards.

There’s lots of experience lost with those stars too, but the injuries mean opportunities for men who might not have featured at all had Ireland been at full-strength.

Ireland’s chances of repeating last summer’s feats – they reached the final of the JWC – have been hit hard by those injury losses but, in terms of development, there is a still a promising group for Malone and Kieran Campbell to work with.

U19 backs Michael Silvester, David McCarthy, Conor Dean and Angus Curtis get call-ups, while Jonny Stewart is involved again, while U19 forwards Ronan Kelleher, Sean Masterson [who have both played for the U20s this season already] and Jordan Duggan also make the cut.

Crucially, influential number eight Caelan Doris – underage for U20s again next season – is fit to feature for Ireland and his brilliance is sure to be instrumental in any big Irish victories, though he was a doubt for the tournament so must find full fitness.

Having U19 players involved is of obvious value, accelerating their development with exposure to the leading U20 players in the world.

With Johnston and McPhillips missing at out-half, there is also room in Ireland’s squad for the fit-again Dean, son of former Ireland out-half Paul, and Alan Tynan, who has been hugely impressive for Young Munster in the Ulster Bank League.

Ulster’s Curtis is also an interesting case study for Irish rugby. A native of Zimbabwe, his father and grandfather played for Ireland. He was schooled at the prestigious Hilton College in South Africa, which has produced a number of Springboks.

Angus Curtis Curtis is a promising young player. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Curtis played for the Sharks U18 side, but moved to Ireland earlier this season with the goal of playing for Ireland. Curtis’ progress – his younger brother is said to be a talent too – is of particular relevance with the IQ Rugby programme having just been announced.

It will be interesting to see how many more young Irish-qualified players likes Curtis are out there and ready to move to Ireland to pursue their careers here.

Given the injuries to key men, there is less pressure on this Ireland U20 squad but in a pool with New Zealand, Scotland and Italy, Malone’s men will back themselves to make a mark.

Their campaign gets underway on 31 May against the Italians, while Schmidt’s senior side get underway on 10 June against the US.

With 11 Irish players involved in the Lions tour and a home Women’s Rugby World Cup to come in August too, an exciting summer beckons for Irish rugby.

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Murray Kinsella

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