30 players were used during Ireland’s 2018 NatWest 6 Nations campaign and the mix of experience and youth paid great dividends in the form of a third Grand Slam. The marriage of youthful exuberance with the senior ranks’ big-match nous made for an all-conquering team in green.
At the end of last Saturday’s 24-15 victory over England, Ireland had nine players on the pitch aged between 20 and 26 – six of whom are 23 or under. While captain Rory Best and other members of the old guard have undoubtedly led from the front, the young guns have also provided some breakout stars of the tournament.
21-year-old winger Jacob Stockdale has grabbed the headlines with his Six Nations record haul of seven tries and Player of the Championship nomination, but the likes of James Ryan (21) and Dan Leavy (23) have made a big impression too, their relentless and power-packed displays seeing them outplay more experienced opponents time and again.
The forward pair, both former St. Michael’s College and Ireland Under-20 captains, really stepped up in a pack missing some big names through injury and retirement. Opportunity knocked and they grasped it with both hands, building handsomely on what they achieved last year during the summer tour and November internationals.
Leavy has excelled in the openside flanker role vacated by the injured Sean O’Brien and Josh van der Flier, growing in stature and influence with each same. It was Ryan’s first full Six Nations Championship as well, and he starred as Ireland’s most-used second row, starting twice with Iain Henderson and twice with Devin Toner.
Between them, Leavy and Ryan had 21 carries, made 31 tackles and caused England huge problems with their abrasiveness around the field and their ability to disrupt, and it was no surprise to hear head coach Joe Schmidt name-check them afterwards.
“Dan Leavy did a super job. Young James Ryan, he’s getting better all the time. The team is growing, they’re getting better, they’re understanding more but there’s still a long way to go for some of those players,” he said. “The youthful enthusiasm is being tempered by the experienced guys that have been there before, and I think that blend is working quite well for us at the moment.”
Jonathan Sexton reckoned the most pleasing thing about the Championship win was ‘how the young guys stepped up’, while skipper Best noted: “The way the young players have come in, they’ve not just fitted in but they want to keep getting better. As long as they keep that mentality and the guys who are slightly older, if they keep that want to keep going forward, that’s all you can ask.”
That will the big challenge for Leavy, Ryan and Ireland’s other Grand Slam-winning rookies. Ten members of the squad still boast 100% winning records in Test rugby – Leavy and Ryan plus Stockdale, Bundee Aki, Chris Farrell, Andrew Porter, Luke McGrath, Joey Carbery and Jordan Larmour – which will be put on the line when the Six Nations champions visit Australia for a three-Test summer tour.
Whatever the immediate future holds, and with the Rugby World Cup now just 18 months away, flanker Leavy has enjoyed being part of this new influx of talent. “Credit to them, they have all been brilliant. You’re coming through an environment with leaders like Peter (O’Mahony), Rory and Johnny that just push you on,” he said. “We set out our goal at the start and the guys are all hugely talented, so credit to them to be able to hop into a team and produce performances like that.”
Ryan also spoke about Best’s leadership as he reflected on such a rewarding campaign both personally and from a squad perspective. “Saturday was an amazing day. Just incredible. I’m just very lucky to be part of it all. Over the moon,” admitted Ryan, who has also taken on the position of dressing room DJ for Schmidt’s charges.
“I think we’ve an amazing skipper in Rory. Obviously this is my first season, but I think he leads so well and when he speaks he just gives confidence to the group. We’re very lucky to have someone like that as a leader. We took it week by week, to be honest, and we managed to get four out of four and then just focused on England.”
The game-by-game approach that served Ireland’s Grand Slam winners of 2009 so well did likewise for the class of 2018, and try-scoring number 8 CJ Stander, who captained Ireland in the closing stages at Twickenham, was delighted that his younger team-mates stood up and were counted at one of world rugby’s most famous cauldrons.
“When you have youngsters coming to Twickenham, it is a daunting place. Lots of teams have come and lost (here) but these guys take it in their stride. They take it day by day and they came into squad and made a huge difference – the leadership group, trickling information down to the rest, and the young boys, putting pressure on everyone else, and the coaches demanding the best of us every day,” said Stander, whose tally of 96 carries is the second most ever in a Six Nations, behind his own record-breaking efforts in 2017 (104 carries).
With other back rowers coming back to fitness, Leavy will face stiff competition to hold onto the number 7 jersey, but he knows his best chance of extending his run in the side is keeping his head down and continuing to hit the targets set by Schmidt, forwards coach Simon Easterby and defence coach Andy Farrell.
“It’s the same every time I go on the pitch, I want to play the best I can,” said the Leinster Academy graduate. “The (Ireland) coaching environment is brilliant because they push you so much so that you can really flourish. I felt every game I improved little on little and was getting closer and closer to the package. Twickenham was a very hard place to come and get a victory. It came together. We all relied on each other and it came off.”
IRELAND’S 2018 GRAND SLAM WINNERS – CLUB 20-26:
Jordan Larmour: 20-years-old
James Ryan: 21
Jacob Stockdale: 21
Andrew Porter: 22
Joey Carbery: 22
Garry Ringrose: 23
Dan Leavy: 23
Robbie Henshaw: 24
Josh van der Flier: 24
Chris Farrell: 25
Luke McGrath: 25
Tadhg Furlong: 25
Jack Conan: 25
Iain Henderson: 26
Kieran Marmion: 26
Jordi Murphy: 26
MEMBERS OF THE GRAND SLAM SQUAD WITH 100% WINNING RECORDS:
10 – Joey Carbery (two starts/eight replacement appearances/eleven conversions)
9 – Jacob Stockdale (nine starts/eleven tries), Dan Leavy (five starts/four replacement appearances/three tries)
8 – James Ryan (five starts/three replacement appearances/one try)
7 – Bundee Aki (seven starts/two tries), Jack Conan (six starts/one replacement appearance/one try), Andrew Porter (two starts/five replacement appearances)
6 – Luke McGrath (one start/five replacement appearances/one try)
3 – Chris Farrell (three starts), Jordan Larmour (three replacement appearances)