That is a very very strong #Wolfpuppies squad. More excited for that than the 6 Nations. Preview to come this evening.
— BallHandling Hooker (@BHHooker) January 15, 2014
A feature of Mike Ruddock Under 20 teams is their organisation, and their ability to come together as a team to achieve results that far exceed the sum of their parts. This more often than not happens in the Junior World Cup, after a "getting to know you" period in the 6 Nations. That should temper the expectations a little, that and knowing that both Wales and England have named very very strong squads too, with England especially the favourites for this upcoming 6 Nations, as usual. A large number of their World Cup winning squad are eligible again this year, chief among them the talented spear tacklist Ross Moriarty. They will however, be without Anthony Watson, who will be with the senior squad, while Jonny Gray will also be needed for the senior Scotland squad. In fact a large number of Ireland's squad featured for the then 19s in their one point loss to England Under 19s last year in Donnybrook.
Another feature of Ireland Under 20 teams is how much smaller physically they are compared to their peers. Aside from man-beasts Dan Leavy and Jack O'Donoghue, this is no different this year and expect the English in particular to be physically superior.
One weakness of last year's group was their lack of a true kicker, with Tom Daly improving enough by the World Cup to achieve some remarkable results. His injury and the lack of a kicker was cruelly exposed to put a dampener on what was a great start to the tournament. That won't happen this time though, with both Ross Byrne and Conor McKeon excellent placekickers. One imagines though that both will be backing up the points machine that is Gary Ringrose after his flawless kicking display in last year's Leinster Schools Senior Cup campaign. Billy Dardis is also a back up option after he took the kicks for Terenure in their schools cup run last year.
A side note, it's interesting to note how many players you will read about here feature in this Ireland U18 squad from two years ago.
At full back, Ruddock has a number of options, with each able to play on the wing, it may end up with all in the team. First up is the amazingly talented Billy Dardis. Four players were mentioned as players of the Leinster School Senior Cup last year, with Terenure's Dardis being one of them. His performance's earned him a spot in the Leinster academy, and the Under 19 eligible player will surely be one of the first names on Ruddock's teamsheet. His pace and electrifying step has caught the eye of Tony Ward, who called for him to be called up to the full Ireland squad last November. One to watch then. However, Dardis's introduction to the 6 Nations will be a bit delayed, as he has a small hamstring problem. Also at full back is the talented Cian Kelleher and Munster academy back Alex Wootton. Wootton was called up to the JWC squad to replace Daly after his injury, and impressed me in this limited time on the wing. Watching Kelleher, it's obvious that he has talent, and that he's been one of the best players in his age group for many years. His pace and step rivals Dardis's, and is the scorer of one of the best live tries I've ever seen when he ghosted through 7 would be tacklers after fielding a clearance kick. It was one of those "Wait, What just happened" moments. He is all too aware of his talents though, and is liable to be selfish, and takes the ball on himself a few too many times. I've no doubt that he will end up with an academy contract in Leinster, and when he does the coaching will aid his passing and decision making and Ireland could have a star. A long way to go yet.
If Dardis gets the full back slot as expected when he returns, Kelleher and Wootton will be fighting for wing spots with Ian Fitzpatrick from Lansdowne and a feature in representative sides up to this point, David Busby from Ulster, who will be lining out with the Ravens this weekend, and Adam Byrne. Byrne is returning from last year's squad and can also play at outside centre. A former Manchester United academy player, his late taking up with the game is obvious with his defensive displays, but his talent is huge and a space for him in the team will probably be found on the wing. A rare combination of pace and power, Byrne is the youngest player to ever represent Leinster. Once he learns the game he only took up when he was 16, the world better watch out. Ian Fitzpatrick featured on the Ireland 19s last year and will be close to a spot too, especially with his Lansdowne links to Ruddock. It was a bit of a surprise not to see Munster academy players David Johnston or Greg O'Shea (U19), and Ulster Raven Ross Adair.. O'Shea especially is a talented back, has been starting for Shannon this season, is a former sprinter and will definitely be in the squad next year.
The video below shows schools highlights from last year, which should feature a sample of the dazzling skills of Dardis (2.35 &7.00), and a sideshow of Sean O'Brien, Rory Moloney (6.00) and Harrison Brewer.
I've mentioned Ross Byrne and Conor McKeon already, yet I'm astounded that Munster's Gearoid Lyons wasn't involved. His display in last year's Munster Senior Cup final was one of the best I've seen from an outhalf, and will be one to watch next year at under 20 level. That's if he can stave off the pressure that Ross Byrne applies to him next year too. Byrne played for the Ireland U19s last month against the Australian schools and will have another year at this level. Already in the Leinster academy, the battle between himself and McKeon at representative level has been going on for years, with Byrne just about getting more starts. The reports from the schools cup last year had McKeon as the outstanding outhalf, yet Byrne was able to guide St. Michael's to within 5 minutes of the cup. His distributon skills and game management are peerless at this level. It's obvious he is one of the generation that grew up watching Ronan O'Gara play rugby. McKeon relies more on his attacking ability, and doesn't bring in his backline as well as Byrne. It will be a fascinating battle between the highly talented pair.
At scrumhalf, the Blackrock College sensation from last year, Charlie Rock isn't included, his place going instead to Ireland U18 captain from last year Nick McCarthy, and Caolin Blade, who was very impressive at under 19 level last year, and Ryan Foley from Munster aren't included, with Munster U19 academy scrumhalf Jack Cullen getting the nod. Ryan Foley, along with Adair, has been surprisingly dropped from the U20s since the recent game v Leinster in which both McCarthy and Rock played for that development Leinster side. Given that McCarthy and Byrne played 9 and 10 together in school, that may give both of them the advantage when it comes to the starting pairings.
Returning loosehead prop Peter Dooley is the highlight of the front row, which might struggle to reach the heights of last summer where it dominated against the bigger packs of New Zealand and Australia. Jacob Walshe is a technically strong scrummager, and Rory Burke will have benefitted from the Munster academy, although they were no match for Ivan Soroka in that recent Leinster match, although there is no place for Soroka in this squad. Denis Coulson and Richie Allen (can't mention Coulson and Allen without showing this outstanding try, also featuring Cian Kelleher) are two other front rowers not involved, their places going to Max Abbott, who has appeared for Munster A this season, and Oisin Heffernan. Saba Meunargia, Connacht's Georgian born acadmey tighthead also misses out to Shane Delahunt, who gets the last front row spot on the squad. RBAI's former captain Josh Atkinson who has featured for the Ravens this year is another to miss out.
Munster's academy second row John Madigan misses out due to injury, while Ulster's Marc Campbell misses out altogether after appearing from the bench in that Leinster development game. Their places go to former St. Michael's captain Ross Molony of the Leinster academy, Stephen Gardiner, with Connacht's Sean O'Brien and a returnee from last year, Peader Timmins able to cover 2nd row and back row. Molony reminds me a lot of Craig Clarke, a fantastic but unassuming leader, who is technically sound and possess an intelligent rugby brain. His try in the Senior Cup final involved a great awareness of space and backing himself to run a good line. He captained the Leinster 20s this year in Dan Leavy's absence, while Sean O'Brien captained the Connacht 20s. One thing is for sure, with Rory Moloney also captaining Ireland 19s last month, there will be plenty of leaders in this squad to help Leavy.
As is the case with the senior provinces in the country, the competition for back row places will be fierce. One of Timmins or O'Brien will have to be accomodated in the 2nd row, while the other joins Leavy in the back row. That leaves one spot available between Rory Moloney, Jack O'Donoghue and Ulster academy openside Frankie Taggart. It's no wonder back row starts like Lorcan Dow of Ulster's academy or Josh Murphy from UCD weren't involved. Ruddock will have a headache or two first cutting one of those from the 28 man squad for the matchday squad, and then deciding who his starting team is. If there is one reason to watch the 20s this season, it's Dan Leavy. Described as the best backrow prospect at this stage of his development in the Leinster academy since the dawn of the professional era, Leavy has that rare combination of pace, power, breakdown skills, soft hands and great link play to become a prototypical seven. He won the star of a talent packed Schools cup final in 2012 and was the difference between the teams on the day. When he appeared in the JWC last summer, it was obvious that he had added some fantastic breakdown skills to his bow. It's frightening to think how good he is now, and how good he can get. Leinster may have huge depth in the backrow, but I suspect Leavy will break into the squad next season at the latest.
One thing is for certain; this is a strong group of players, with more talented backups left out then ever before. This year's Wolfpuppies seem to have depth in a lot of areas, and led by Dan Leavy, they should do well. A number of players will realise they are fighting for academy contracts, while others will be using this as a stepping stone to senior recognition sooner rather than later. I would expect a lot of this group to be starting in their province in the next few years, a lot more than last year's group. We'll wait and see
Expected (Note the difference between expected and my) 23:
15. Billy Dardis
14. Adam Byrne
13. Dan Goggin
12. Peter Robb
11. Cian Kelleher
10. Ross Byrne
9. Nick McCarthy
1. Peter Dooley
2. Max Abbott
3. Ryan Burke
4. Ross Molony
5. Sean O'Brien
6. Peader Timmins
7. Dan Leavy (c)
8. Jack O'Donoghue
16. Shane Delahunt
17. Jacob Walshe
18. Oisin Heffernan
19. Stephen Gardiner
20. Rory Moloney
21. Jack Cullen
22. Conor McKeon
23. Gary Ringrose.