Thursday 24 October 2013

Sink or Swim?

Let me tell you a story of two scrumhalves. They were born not 40 miles from each other, a year apart. Both started on their Junior World Cup teams. Both starred as their teams created huge shocks in beating the mighty baby Boks; and this season, both are first choice for their team, and started and starred in both Heineken Cup games. The only difference between them is that one was included in his country's squad for the November internationals, while the other wasn't.

Why am I telling you this? Well, it all started over a month ago, when Joe Schmidt originally announced his 41 man squad for a training camp. These series of tweets from Nigel Pearson (@SplottBoy) got me thinking about how young players are given more of a chance in Wales than in Ireland. This week's announcements of squads for the end of year tests emphasised this point with the two scrumhalves.

And if you haven't guessed already, the scrumhalves are Rhodri Williams and Kieran Marmion.

Should players be thrown in the deep end?

Well, Ireland don't seem to expose young players to the international arena, a point highlighted by the fact that one of the uncapped players in the Irish squad named this week is 32 year old spring chicken, James Coughlan.

But it does seem to be how they do it in Wales, and a look at two current British and Irish Lions in their squad, George North and Leigh Halfpenny suggest this. Both capped at just 19 years of age, George North made a huge impact from the beginning, scoring two tries on his debut against South Africa, prompting Bryan Habana to say that Wales had found a real gem; "George looks good enough and mature enough to become one of the greats," said Habana. "You don't say that lightly, but he's laid a great foundation and played a lot better than any 18-year-old I've seen."

Tom Prydie is one of the examples of harming a players career by exposing them too soon. Photo Getty Images
While North and Halfpenny are clear success stories of throwing youngsters into the deep end, it hasn't always worked for the Welsh. Remember Tom Prydie? It's nothing to be embarrassed about if you don't. Having just turned 18, Tom Prydie made his senior Welsh debut against Italy in Wales's final game of the 2010 6 Nations. To give you a hint at how his career has gone since then, he made his debut for Wales Under 20s a full two years later. In total, he has 3 Wales senior caps, but at the grand old age of 21, he still has time (and lots of it).

Another approach is the new scheme that New Zealand are incorporating. In naming their squad for their Northern tour, Ardie Savea, and uncapped 20 year old with enormous potential, was named as a "non-playing apprentice". The idea is that Savea will get used to how things are done in the New Zealand camp, learn from their coaches and senior players, so that he feels comfortable in that environment before he's pushed too soon.

New Zealand are also very good at telling under-performing players to work on their game in specific ways. In 2010, 21 year old Aaron Cruden made his debut for New Zealand. Despite showcasing his incredible offloading skills and attacking flair, the New Zealand management decided that he didn't have enough game management and that he needed to work on his kicking. Sent to work on this in the ITM Cup, Cruden spent a season away from the national setup improving himself and came back a better player, and has established himself as arguably the second best outhalf in world rugby.

The same thing has happened with Piri Weepu, who needed to work on his speed and fitness, with Liam Messam, who needed to work on his work ethic and work in the tight, and that is why Victor Vito is in the form of his career with Wellington in the ITM Cup, because he's been told to work on his game. In New Zealand, they have the trust to know that when they are told to improve, they have time to work on their game and be able to come back and be selected for their national side.

A look at other nations will see that Italy dropped Andrea Masi in the deep end in 1999 as a 19 year old, but it was only 2008 when he really started to show what he was capable of. France are currently picking 19 year old Gael Fickou, but neglecting to choose the other 19 year old Christopher Tolofua, Scotland have recently selected exciting 20 year old Mark Bennett and 19 year old lock Jonny Gray.

England have had a mixed bag of it too, from Matthew Tait's mediocre career, to Owen Farrell being nominated for the IRB Player of the Year in 2012, aged just 21. The biggest case of where exposure of young players to worldwide fame is bad is Danny Cipriani. Tempted by all the vices that come with being famous, one too many bar fights, boozy nights and the glamour of a model girlfriend has proved to much for Cipriani, who has faded into obscurity, at just 25.

Another player on the verge of wasting huge talent is James O'Connor. Part of the trio of outrageous talented by troubled Australian stars of Quade Cooper and Kurtley Beale, O'Connor was only 18 when he made his Australia debut. 44 caps later, he's shown too many his obvious talent, and to others he's been involved in missed team meetings, bust ups and recently being too drunk to board a flight at an airport. At just 23, James O'Connor still has time to resurrect his career.

Gordon D'Arcy would never have become an Irish legend were it not his friends setting him straight. Photo: Inpho
Just ask Gordon D'Arcy. In May 1998, D'Arcy was a talented full-back just finished with the Senior Cup for the last time with Clongowes, and preparing for his Leaving Cert that June. Then, the then coach Warren Gatland surprised many by calling him up for the summer tour to South Africa. D'Arcy declined so he could do his Leaving Cert, and did get his first cap later that year against Romania. The world was at D'Arcy's feet, and he looked set for a full and long career as Ireland's saviour. He was even touted as a bigger prospect than Jonny Wilkinson and Brian O'Driscoll.

And then he nearly blew it. Just two years after declining the call up that would have meant he missed his Leaving Cert, the Irish centre was a mess. Twice he turned up at Leinster training sessions with enough evidence of the night before for club officials to want him sent packing. He had made the Ireland 1999 World Cup squad, but was nothing more than a spectator. From there, things only got worse. So much worse in fact, that he didn't make the 2003 World Cup squad. Worse, it wasn't a story. He had pretty much slipped off the monitor. Matt Williams was his coach at Leinster at the time "There were people who wanted to throw him out. I had to fight hard to get him a contract."

After he vanished off the international radar, it took until friends took him aside and gave him "the best advice I have ever had . . . sending me down the right path for a change".

The change was that he was named the 2004 6 Nations Player of the Tournament, became a British and Irish Lion, and the rest is history. He may have made his debut a few months before O'Driscoll, but that's why he's 50 caps behind him. In fact, when O'Driscoll was getting his 50th cap, D'Arcy earned his 10th in the same game.

So complete was the turnaround in D'Arcy's fortunes after being thrust into stardom overnight, that it was suggested in media circles that he could help another troubled star when the an early dramatic announcement on the international stage threatened to blow his career.

This troubled star debuted for his country at an early age. A game winning performance in a Six Nations game catapulted him to wider recognition, but his relationship with his high profile girlfriend started to raise questions about his attitude. Further drunken antics and fights with teammates were the beginning of his fall from grace. Since then, he's jumped from team to team, while his antics have continued, dashing any hopes of him fulfilling his promise.

I could have been talking about many players there, and if you had said Danny Cipriani, you would have been wrong.

In 2005, Gavin Henson had the world at his feet. Just like D'Arcy he wasn't in Wales's next World Cup squad, but managed to fight his way back for a Grand Slam. From there, his career effectively ended. If only he had D'Arcy's friends to have set him on the right path. Henson was the 2001 IRB Junior Player of The Year, and never got to fulfil his talent after being released into fame at too young an age. 

The Junior World Cup is a fantastic tournament for breeding young players, from Henson back in 2001, to more current superstars like Eben Etzebeth. Etzebeth was only 20 when he made his debut last year, but already he's become a world class second row. South Africa aren't afraid of letting their youngsters have a chance, as 2012 Junior Player of the Year Jan Serfontein can prove. Exactly one year after winning that award he had made is full debut for South Africa.

And what of one of the players Serfontein beat to win the award? JJ Hanrahan did what no Irish player has done before or since, and that was be nominated for the Young Player of the Year award when Serfontein won it. Nine Springboks caps later for Serfontein, and Hanrahan is only just breaking into the Munster squad, and an Ireland cap seems a few years away yet.

Ireland haven't always been this slow bringing players through, which D'Arcy and O'Driscoll can attest too. More recently, Luke Fitzgerald and Keith Earls have been fast tracked into the national set up, to varying degrees of success.

So which is better? Should you expose young talent to the harsh world of international rugby and let their talent speak for themselves and blossom like George North, or will the spotlight be too much, and lead to off field problems and a downward spiral?

Ultimately, it's all down to the mental strength of the player in question. But I think there are things that a coach can do. The current New Zealand model of easing a player into the setup, before allowing them a small number of substitute appearances in meaningless games, before gradually trusting them with starts and important games. If at any stage the player doesn't fulfil expectations, time spent with their province working on specific aspects of their game while knowing that another call up isn't far away seems to get the best out of each player. This also develops trust while building a squad, which is what Ireland needs for any competition that they hope to win.

Time will tell if the scrumhalves mentioned earlier will go fulfil their potential or go by the wayside.

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