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Laszlo Geczo/INPHO Ulster's Tom O'Toole looks to be a certain debutant.
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'They need to be consistent' - Grant hopeful Ulster youngsters can make Ireland mark
Ulster assistant coach Roddy Grant says he’s been in contact with Paul O’Connell ‘a fair bit.’

WITH THE IRFU having confirmed the Ireland senior team will have summer Tests against Japan and the USA in July, attention now turns to who will be in Andy Farrell’s squad.

Traditionally, summer tours during a British and Irish Lions year are used for blooding young players, and this year will likely be no different with eight Ireland players heading to South Africa, and the expectation is there will be several debutants included by Farrell.

For Ulster, there is reason for optimism that several players could get the call.

Tighthead prop Tom O’Toole looks to be a certain debutant after backing up Tadhg Furlong and Andrew Porter in the last two squads, both of whom are away with the Lions. Increasingly impressive No.8 Nick Timoney has also put forward a very strong claim recently, too.

In the backs, full-back Michael Lowry has been one of their best performers, while winger Robert Baloucoune has bounced back superbly from long-term injury. In the centre, James Hume has continued to mature into a consummate professional.

And it is over the next few weeks in the Rainbow Cup that, even though Ulster’s hopes of reaching the final may be all but over after losing their opening two games against Connacht and Munster, those players will hope to further their claims for game time on the international team.

The big question, however, particularly in the wake of Ulster’s three recent defeats which has seen them knocked out of the Challenge Cup and fall to the bottom of the Rainbow Cup standings, is can those players produce at a consistent level on the big stage.

For Ulster assistant coach Roddy Grant, he admits that is a concern for those players looking to make the jump to the international scene, but he hopes that what the Ireland selectors have seen has been enough to convince them.

“I’m in contact with Paul O’Connell a fair bit, they’ve been around here and seen training. Their selection (process) is excellent, it’s very thorough,” says the former flanker.

“In terms of those guys, they’ll be aware of who they’re looking at for the summer, whether a game or two at the end of the season will make a huge difference to that, that’s up to them. Obviously for the individuals, it can only harm them if they don’t play well.

“They need to be consistent. Those guys are really talented young guys, they’ve got a lot of ability. I’ve said it before when asked about young guys, the biggest challenge is consistency, whether that’s consistency in physicality, consistency in decision-making or whatever is.

“It’s up to the coaches to decide but, from our point of view, I really hope guys can be involved. International rugby is such a special thing. In pro sport, with it being a profession, it can be overlooked that it’s a dream.

“It means a lot to guys so hopefully they can get selected.”

As for Ulster as a team, with nothing to play for in their final three games – starting with Leinster at the RDS Arena on Friday – there’s a balance to be struck for the coaching staff as they move forward, both from a selection and a mindset perspective.

While many would like to see a raft of Academy players selected in order to build for next season, there are, of course, those Ireland hopefuls that need to rubber-stamp their place in the summer squad with some big performances, while Iain Henderson will likely want a few games before linking up with the Lions.

Added to that is the need to arrest their three-game losing streak and get back in the win column in order to get some confidence back at Kingspan Stadium, so while Grant acknowledges that they need to start building for the future, there is more than just that to consider when it comes to selection for this week.

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“Any time you play guys, especially younger guys, you want them to put their hands up, go well and put pressure on other guys. That’s a really important factor for young guys,” adds Grant when talking about how Ulster will line up this week.

“Selection shows that as well. There’s a reason against Munster we played some of the younger guys – we want to see that. We haven’t kept selection the same over the last three weeks, so there’s definitely an element of that.

“The other one, obviously which is just as important, is that you want to win games after losing, for a team that’s really important. Every game you want to win. Selection brings other dynamics to that but it’s really important to win.

“It’s not good losing in pro sport, regardless of the competition, regardless of anything really, even if you are planning for the future. And it sucks when you don’t win.

“We want to win, we want to get back on the horse. It’s good culturally, it’s good professionally; but also going forward into next season it’s really important, especially in our squad where the majority of them are Irish guys, it’s important for our young guys to come through and have a good system of that.”

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