After joining the Ireland coaching ticket for the summer tour, Ronan O’Gara has high praise for Garry Ringrose and the young crop of players in the squad
I got done up right and proper by Simon Zebo on the flight over to New Jersey — check Twitter — but I’m going to give him a pass on it. Why? Because he’s Cork, and a good one. He’s a bit of craic, even he can’t use being young as an excuse for teenage antics anymore.
You take himself, Earlsie, Cian Healy and Devin Toner out of this Irish squad in America, and you can see just how young the group is. There’s not a lot of experience here, but in its stead is that lovely young vibrancy and honesty. There are many professional reasons why it’s great to be involved again in an Irish set-up, but, for me, one is seeing what playing for your country means to fellas. Their preparation and attitude has been flawless. You couldn’t get a more willing bunch of young fellas on a tour. Yes, it helps that the message from the head coach is being delivered simply and succinctly, but these young Irish players are so keen to learn and get better. There’s so many exciting players coming through for Ireland. That much is already evident this week on tour with the group. I’m not talking about the likes of Garry Ringrose, as he would be in the established bracket in the context of this particular group.
That said, he’s serious up close. I think he is going to be an incredible player. You can see there’s a nice beginning of a physical frame on him, but it’s his attitude that impresses. These lads are humble and work so diligently every day. He seems to have that in spades. Gary’s not an especially big guy by any means, but you can just see what he has is impressive, you can predict that in another 24 months he’s going to be solid. He’s still a baby in rugby terms. We forget that, given his rapid development. He has a kicking game too — that much I’ve seen in a session we did on Wednesday. I can’t vouch for how rapid he is off one foot, but he looks fast.
Joey Carbery looks really interesting prospect too and it’s a big camp for Tiernan O’Halloran, who has done a lot of good work with Connacht. He needs to kick on to another level and throw his name in as a genuine contender for the 15 shirt.
Even with the younger lads, many of whom are starting from scratch, Joe has created a culture in the Irish camp where fellas in the same position have to talk to each other about strategies and situations. Maybe in the old days, if you didn’t like a fella, you didn’t need to talk to him. This week, you see younger guys huddled around laptops and sharing ideas. It’s been clear that Joe has incredible buy-in from his players. His energy and enthusiasm is quite incredible as a coach.
I’m very much an observer this week, but it’s the small details again that are impressive. There actually hasn’t been that much we could do on the pitch. The squad trained last Sunday in Dublin. On Monday morning, half the staff and half the players flew out. The lads who will be playing tomorrow evening trained Monday, did weights and flew out to the States that evening.
Tuesday was a really interesting walkthrough in a New Jersey gym, players practising positions and strategies. Wednesday was a kicking day before a full session yesterday. Captain’s run today, and we play tomorrow. At this stage of a long season, there’s not much point in flogging anyone’s guts out.
Being the only one of the rookie coaches here also means I am able to get a good handle on a lot of the newer lads whom I would not have seen up close before. I haven’t even seen much of Rory Scannell or John Ryan, bar the odd Munster game, much less the likes of Andrew Porter, Dave Heffernan, Jacob Stockdale, James Ryan, or Rory O’Loughlin from Leinster.
On Wednesday morning, I surfaced at 3.30am over here to watch the Lions in Auckland. Strange, strange match. At 10-5 up, I thought the Lions looked the better prospect and would kick on. Then, the Blues got a poxy try. The Lions wrestled back control, but were undone by a cracking finish from Ihaia West.
At the death, the Lions fouled up a five-metre lineout. Unfortunately for Rory Best, Joe Marler was not on the same wavelength with his lifting role. Theses are the moments on a Lions tour you need to be nailing.
Warren Gatland’s management team are, presumably, establishing the identity of their first test players, and putting them on the pitch together, starting with tomorrow’s game against the Crusaders. It’s about combinations, especially against decent opposition. Farrell and Murray are paired at half back tomorrow and I wouldn’t be surprised if Gatland is looking at that now as his first test partnership for June 24. Certainly, Johnny Sexton has an uphill battle to wrest that 10 jersey back into his locker. Realistically, test team needs as many as three runs out together before the All Blacks.
Despite what we have seen so far, I really think the Lions test team will be decent. Every New Zealand opposition only worries about their own game against the Lions. The Blues might have been, position-wise, the poorest of the NZ franchises, but that doesn’t follow facing the Lions.
While the Crusaders are unbeaten this season in Super rugby, facing the tourists takes on a life of its own. Given the team Gatland has selected, it’s a perfect marker for the Lions to start the clock on June 24.