No other Irish U21 or U20 squad has produced as many Lions as the 2012 squad. The 2007 squad came close, with Cian Healy, Seán O’Brien and Keith Earls (Luke Fitzgerald, who was of that age group, went straight from school in the Irish and Leinster senior teams).
Not only were Lions made from the 2012 crop, there was an ensemble of talented athletes who would go on to play international and provincial rugby. This ensemble included a varied group of players with valuable stories.
Second in the Six Nations, five in the Junior World Championships. The 2012 Ireland U20s – which were sponsored by PwC – is a case study in the unpredictability of the trajectory of young athletes. The most talented and hyped stars sometimes fail, while others fly under the radar and take a scenic route to the top.
four out halves
Their journey started just like the current 2022 group, with warm-up wins against a Leinster Development XV and an Ulster Ravens side. They came in handy on their way to the Six Nations, led by Head Coach Mike Ruddock (father of Rhys and head coach of the 2005 Grand Slam winning Welsh team).
An obvious area of focus was the outdoor situation. There were four prospects, one from each province, all of whom wanted to claim their place in the 23. These men were Paddy Jackson, JJ Hanrahan, Cathal Marsh and Jack Carty.
Jackson was Ulster’s messiah, the second coming of Humphreys, and captain of Ireland. JJ was a talented football player from Munster who was able to fill in the middle. Cathal Marsh, an alumnus of St. Michael’s College, had lit up the Leinster Schools Senior Cup with striking flair. Jack Carty was a clear fourth in the pecking order.
Over the course of the Six Nations and World Championships that summer, and indeed the next few years of their career, we would see many swings in each player’s pecking order and fanfare.
The U20s Six Nations started on February 3rd at Dubarry Park against Wales. Ireland ran out 11-6 victors. Jackson and Hanrahan started at 10 and 12, with Marsh taking his place on the bench.
Of the future Lions, Iain Henderson and Jack Conan started at last and number eight respectively, with Tadhg Beirne as substitutes. Daniel Qualter, a man from Connacht who retired in 2020, started for Beirne. Furlong did not appear and was probably injured.
The next match was a hard-earned 13-12 win over France, followed by easy wins over Italy and Scotland in rounds three and four. It provided a trip to England and a chance at a Grand Slam.
Ireland was defeated 20-9 by an England side, which included future Lions Anthony Watson and Kyle Sinckler, with future Ireland and Ulsterman Will Addison starting at 13.
Ireland finished third, tied on points with both France and champions England, but behind on points difference. Carty did not appear in the tournament and Beirne only got one start.
A selection of future stars
The squad for the 2012 World Championships was named in May, with Tadhg Furlong returning. Fortunately for Carty, however, he was called up to replace Jackson. Jackson was ordered to go home by new Ulster coach Mark Anscombe as he was needed for their preparation for the season.
The squad featured many notable names who would have a great career and who still add something to their resume.
At scrum half, there was an ongoing battle that lasted for years. Luke McGrath was a prodigious talent on the St. Michael’s assembly line, and Marmion was an IQ player who was born in England to Irish parents and raised in Wales. While McGrath’s name was more familiar to most fans as he was a Senior Cup starlet, it was Marmion who owned the basic jersey.
The backline also included Munster and Ireland center Chris Farrell, and ex-Leinster man Barry Daly. Both men took roads less traveled as they worked their way to their county’s first pick over the next five years.
With Ulster being a hotbed for talented centers for the past decade, Farrell made the bold decision to move to Bernard Jackman-coached Grenoble at the start of the 2014-15 Top 14 season.
The gamble paid off and he was rewarded with enough playing time in France to grow as a player, which in turn led to Munster signing him in 2017, followed by Irish caps.
Despite playing in the U20 that summer, Daly was not offered a place in Leinster’s Academy. It was a serious blow to his mind and to his confidence. After his early retirement in 2019, he said:
“Almost everyone when they come up they think they are good enough and I was the same.”
He balanced work life in KPMG and AIL rugby with UCD, before the appointment of Noel McNamara as UCD coach gave him the impetus to realize his talents and make another serious attempt at the professional game.
“I was always so grateful to see both sides of the coin. From the disappointment of being rejected and having to face the real world and also get a second chance.”
His 2016 trial with Leinster led to a place in their senior roster. He was one of the fastest players in Ireland, combining his blazing pace with an eye for the line to finish as Leinster’s top scorer with 13, in their incredible double winning 2017/18 season. He was also called up to train with the Irish squad.
The Irish peloton had other well-known names such as Munster’s tough Niall Scannell and Ulster’s tough Alan O’Connor. O’Connor was also rejected from Leinster Academy but has built a distinguished career as a pivotal workhorse in the Ulster pack.
Leinster flanker Conor Gilsenan, and center Sam Coghlan-Murray represent a category of players we see in every new crop of U20s. The player who has shown promise since school level, never quite reaching the heights in the professional game.
Gilsenan led Clongowes to the Leinster Schools Senior Cup title in 2011, before entering the Leinster Academy. It should be noted that reaching Leinster’s breeding ground as a flanker is an incredible achievement in itself.
A short loan spell at Connacht followed before signing for London Irish. He played over 70 games for Irish before retiring in 2020 at the age of 27. You can see him on TV in the coming weeks as he takes his place in the new season of BBC’s The Apprentice.
Coghlan-Murray, of Newbridge College, was another school star. He was capped for Leinster but never got a senior contract. In 2015, he joined the England Championship team Nottingham before retiring in 2016. He currently works as an account manager.
At the World Junior Championships
Ireland’s opening match at the Junior World Championships in South Africa was beyond disheartening, and it looked like an inevitable loss would follow. It would have been commendable to get within 10 points.
They faced South Africa, the favorites and eventual winners of that year’s tournament. Ireland had traditionally fought at U20 level against England, France and the Saffers. Their teams were bigger, meaner and more experienced.
South Africa’s starting XV boasted the likes of Pieter Steph Du Toit, Steven Kitshoff, Jan Serfontein, with Handre Pollard on the bench.
The game turned out to be remarkable in many ways. It was one of the greatest Irish underage wins of all time as we witnessed the coming of age of a generation of players, and it was a strewn performance that will go down in U20 lore.
Tadhg Furlong took on Kitshoff. At the time, Kitshoff was a huge prospect in his country and had already lined up for the Stormers and Western Province in Super Rugby and the Currie Cup. Furlong more than held his own, announcing himself to the world as a wad of serious chops. He is now the best tighthead in the world and Kitshoff would also be considered the best loosehead in the game in the eyes of many a fan.
Iain Henderson also emerged as one of the brightest prospects in Ireland. His speed and strength were a rare combination for an Irish forward, and Stephen Ferris comparisons were inevitable.
The team’s standout player, however, would turn out to be Munster’s JJ Hanrahan, who didn’t come in until 10am due to Jackson’s absence. He lightened the game and the tournament, leading Ireland to a 23-19 win over South Africa. He was awarded a nomination for Young Player of the Year, which was eventually won by Jan Serfontein.
His performances include an array of kicks, passes and running highs. A distinguished career as Ronan O’Gara’s heir to Munster and Ireland seemed like a potential and perhaps even a likely scenario given the quality of his playing.
Ireland would lose to England in what was a brutally difficult group, eventually finishing second and missing out on a place in the quarter-finals. However, they finished strong, beating England and France in the play-off for 5e Place.
Looking at where they are now, it’s clear proof that we can’t begin to make a final judgment on a player of that age.
Of the four out halves, Carty was number four. He is now the only one with prospects for Ireland and is comfortably the second best 10 in the country. Marsh played professionally for Rugby United New York before retiring last year. Never again to reach the heights of the summer of 2012, Hanrahan is enjoying a successful stint with French powerhouse Clermont Auvergne and has just announced a move to the Dragons.
Of the future Lions, only Henderson and Furlong looked like they could climb that summit. Conan was taller than an above average player, but didn’t look like someone who would ever push Toby Faletau out of a Lions from birth.
Beirne played that tournament in Henderson’s shadow, before embarking on one of the most exciting journeys of any current Irish international. His story of rejection at Leinster and redemption at Scarlets is well documented and he is now one of the best players in the world.
With the Irish Six Nations U20s for 2022 approaching, we will inevitably pull out our glass balls and begin the annual tradition of choosing our favorite young talents and predicting their future. While we may get some predictions right, there will no doubt be many twists and turns in the careers of the 22′ class.
See also: Peter O’Mahony’s comments about Ashling Murphy were so important