Future is bright for province’s young stars

I was delighted to see the emergence of some young Munster players into the national rugby consciousness over the course of the U20 Six Nations.

What Munster fan wouldn’t? The likes of Craig Casey, Josh Wycherley, Jake Flannery, Jonathan Wren and John Hodnett, along with guys like Ben Healy and Sean French have massive potential to be senior Munster players and some (if not all) have full senior honours at test level in their future with a bit of luck. 

It’s hugely exciting but these guys didn’t come from nowhere. A lot of work has been going on for the last few years and guys like Peter Malone – along with countless coaches at schools, clubs, development officers, etc – deserve a lot of credit for helping to bring through a talented crop of players and there’s more to come, in my opinion. 

It’s hard for me to pick out one player in particular as my top prospect, because all of that Slam side’s Munster contingent has serious potential. It reads like a cop out but I can’t mention one guy as a stand out without then looking at someone else and going, well, he’s got a lot of qualities too. 

I’ve been over Craig Casey in a previous article but he’s as good a scrum half prospect as I’ve seen at his age level in four or five years. 

Under-20 Six Nations Championship Round 4, Irish Independent Park, Co. Cork 8/3/2019 Ireland Under 20’s vs France U20’s IrelandÕs Craig Casey is tackled by Arthur Vincent of France Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Oisin Keniry

Josh Wycherley is a very interesting player, too. His scrummaging and work rate around the field were the stand out for me, especially relative to the guys he was directly competing against when we played England and France.

It’s hard to know how his career path will go because he’s in one of the most abrasive positions for picking up injuries. If he can stay fit and on the same physicality trajectory he’s on now, we could have a really good loosehead prop on our hands. 

Under-20 Six Nations Championship Round 1, Irish Independent Park, Cork 1/2/2019 Ireland U20’s vs England U20’s Ireland’s Josh Wycherley with Ted Hill and Tom Willis of England Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Laszlo Geczo

John Hodnett is another player who caught the eye with a number of impressive displays at #8. Hodnett is a guy that I’ve been aware of for a few years now when he was playing for Clonakilty underage and his dynamic ball carrying has scaled up to every level he’s played at. He’s not currently in the Munster Academy but I think it’s only a matter of time before he gets added there full-time. 

Under-20 Six Nations Championship Round 1, Irish Independent Park, Cork 1/2/2019 Ireland U20’s vs England U20’s Ireland’s John Hodnett is tackled by Fraser Dingwall of England Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Laszlo Geczo

As for his long term prospects, I’m not sure if #8 will be where we’ll see him do his best work. For me, I think openside will suit him better, given his pace and ball carrying ability.

As a third phase runner off the scrum or a wide option on reduced lineouts – combined with his ability as a wide strike runner – you can see how he might work there, freed from the heavy collisions that the #8 shirt often requires at the top level.

His running style and impact for the U20s reminded me a lot of Sean Cronin, actually, and that kind of physicality is something I hope we’ll see a lot more of in the next few years. 

Action from the Irish U-20s win over England. Credit: RTÉ.

Jake Flannery is someone who took me by surprise a little bit. The migration from #10 to fullback isn’t as intuitive as a lot of people make it out to be so for Flannery to perform so well is a credit to his intelligence, more than anything else.

There are some intangibles to that position that not everyone can work out but Flannery managed the transition incredibly well while also adding an awful lot with ball in hand. 

Under-20 Six Nations Championship Round 1, Irish Independent Park, Cork 1/2/2019 Ireland U20’s vs England U20’s Ireland’s Jake Flannery Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Laszlo Geczo

He’s got the hands and kicking ability that you’d expect from a guy who plays at #10 regularly – and his work at first receiver was as sharp as you’d expect – but his pace and strike running ability were a really positive addition, as was his handling in the wide areas on the surge (see the above GIF with John Hodnett). 

Flannery’s not currently in the full Munster academy but you’d have to imagine that he’ll be offered a slot there sooner rather than later on the strength of this Championship’s performances. 

Jonathan Wren is another back three player who’s made waves this Spring. I’d mainly seen him at fullback at schools level but his work all across the back three during this Championship. 

Action from Irish U-20 v Wales. Credit: RTÉ.

His pace, footwork, handling and acceleration out of the step were the standout qualities for me and his innate ability to beat people one on one.  

Ireland U-20s v Scotland. Credit: IRFU.

His pace, positional intelligence (at fullback or wing) and his movement in close quarters at pace are key parts of his skillset. I’d expect him to earn some senior game time next season. 

Ben Healy is a really interesting option at flyhalf. At 6’2″ and 94kg, Healy is the closest flyhalf we have in the squad with the physical characteristics of Johnny Sexton and he showed some of the same qualities during the Championship – his ability to carry from #10, bind defenders close to the first receiver position and hurt those that slipped off his line chief amongst them.

He can kick off both sides and showed a reliable shot off the tee when given the opportunity. Definitely one to watch, as he’s still growing into his frame and could be an option at 10/12 in my opinion. 

Under-20 Six Nations Championship Round 4, Irish Independent Park, Co. Cork 8/3/2019 Ireland Under 20’s vs France U20’s Ireland’s Ben Healy Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Oisin Keniry

Sean French is a guy who I’ve been hyped about since he was with Pres, so you can imagine my disappointment when he seemed to be on the outs from the squad after the England game, where I thought he performed quite well.

He went and killed it for Cork Con and, when the opportunity arose, he brought the same pace, handling, aggressive line running, appreciation of space and just straight up x-factor that has marked him out since school.

It remains to be seen where he ends up in a senior team scenario – midfield or wing, I think he’s got the gas and footwork for both – but he’s got the size and physicality to see senior gametime sooner rather than later.

His defence is one area that needs to be looked at, as it is for most young backs, but he’s got the talent to fill that gap in his resume and push on to senior level. 

Under-20 Six Nations Championship Round 5, Colwyn Bay, Wales 15/3/2019 Wales U20’s vs Ireland U20’s Ireland’s Sean French skips past Tiaan Thomas-Wheeler of Wales Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Ryan Byrne

As with all young players, they need a bit of luck with injury and opportunity but they’ll need to take control of their own destiny too. Young players aren’t owed anything in the professional game.

They’ll get a shot, as most young players players do, but they have to take the shot when they get it too. They won’t be asked to shoot the lights out on their debut, but coaches look for the little things that mark out a young player with a professional future from the guys with potential that never really make it.

Most – if not all – of these young players will get that shot in the coming years and, if they capitalise on it, we might be looking at a very special crop of players. 

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