With the Pro 12 set to recommence in just three weeks’ time, Jonathan Fitzpatrick profiles four young Irish players to watch out for throughout the 2016/17 season.
1. Cian Kelleher (Connacht)
The manner in which Leinster expressed their disappointment at losing the services of the young fullback in February speaks volumes about his potential. Rejecting the province’s proposed two-year development contract, Kelleher instead moved to Galway ahead of the new season.
The former St. Michael’s College student is one of the most exciting attacking prospects in Ireland. He has risen through the ranks with aplomb, and is craving the opportunity to showcase his talents on a bigger stage. Working alongside Dave Ellis and Pat Lam will allow Kelleher to develop his skills further, which is an exciting thought having seen the excellent work done by Connacht’s coaching team in the last few years.
There’s no shortage of competition in that three quarter line – Tiernan O’Halloran, Matt Healy and Niyi Adeolokun were amongst Connacht’s most impressive players last year, while Danie Poolman, Darragh Leader and new recruit Josh Rowland are all in the mix too. That said, it’s hard to imagine a player of Kelleher’s skillset will remain outside of the match day 23 for long once he gets settled, and once he starts to get regular game time. He could easily be one of the stars of the season.
Sean O’Brien is another who will have a big year following his excellent breakthrough last season, while new Irish international Ultan Dillane is still only 22. That’s not even mentioning Rory Parata, Peter Robb, James Connolly and Eoghan Masterson – after the dizzy heights of last season, it’s difficult not to be excited at the prospective talent coming up in the Sportsground under Pat Lam and co.
2. Sam Arnold (Munster)
A promising young Ulsterman on the move in search of game time, Sam Arnold will link up with Munster and the newly-appointed Johan ‘Rassie’ Erasmus ahead of a new era for the Irish province.
Arnold has enjoyed a quick rise to prominence, making his debut for Ulster at the tender age of 18 during the 2014/15 season. He managed a further 14 appearances for the senior side in last year’s Pro 12, before an unfortunate injury prevented him from playing a role in the Irish U-20s run to the World Cup final in June.
A catalogue of Irish internationals occupy the midfield berths in Belfast, so Arnold’s move to Limerick is a great one for Irish Rugby. The arrival of a highly regarded figure like Erasmus speaks further to this, as he will hone the crafts of the 21-year-old centre over the next few years.
Unfortunately Arnold is set to miss the opening period of the season after suffering a knee injury during training, and there’s yet to be an update on his return. Not an ideal start for Munster’s new recruit, but when back to full fitness he’ll make a strong impact.
Other young talents to look out for this season in Limerick include the returning Darren O’Shea, the towering presence of John Madigan, and U-20s star Bill Johnstone, who could play his way into Munster’s 10 shirt by the end of the year.
3. Kyle McCall (Ulster)
In the last three or four years, a wealth of talent has emerged at loosehead prop in Ireland, and Kyle McCall is the latest to give Ireland coach Joe Schmidt food for thought and outline his stance as a future international.
Despite making his Ulster debut in 2013, McCall only earned his first competitive start for the province last November. An impressive display afforded McCall further opportunities, and he seized them with open arms. He became one of the team’s strongest performers across the campaign, and deservedly picked up the BT Young Player of the Year accolade at Ulster’s end-of-season awards.
McCall is built very much in the mould of a modern prop – dynamic, mobile and quick with good ball handling skills and an enthusiastic workrate. A strong scrummager, he looks set to reign supreme in Ulster’s front row for years to come.
Lorcan Dow in the backrow and Jacob Stockdale out wide are two other young Ulster stars worth keeping an eye out for also.
4. Adam Byrne (Leinster)
With Ian Madigan and Ben Te’o moving to pastures new and Luke Fitzgerald retiring, an injury to star signing Robbie Henshaw is the last thing head coach Leo Cullen needed ahead of the new season. Shorn in midfield, it means Cullen will have to look at a few different options across his backline at the start of the campaign. Adam Byrne is one such option ready to hit the ground running.
Byrne is a relative latecomer to the game, first picking up the ball in Naas Rugby Club at the age of 16. Just over two years later, he became the youngest player to represent Leinster at senior level, coming off the bench against Connacht as an 18-year-old in the RDS.
Since then Byrne has played sevens for Ireland’s national side, and featured three more times for Leinster’s senior team – all last season. He impressed on those occasions, where his natural athleticism was clear. A powerful, pacy winger with quick hands and a good sidestep, his youthful exuberance could provide Leinster with the breath of fresh air they need out wide.
In the Kearney brothers, Kirchner, Nacewa and the returning Niall Morris, Leinster have plenty of experience in their wings. But the raw talent of Byrne, now 22, could add a lot of flair to that backline outside a new-look centre combination.
Byrne is not the only emerging talent hoping to excite the RDS this year, as Joey Carberry and Ross Byrne could both work themselves into Leo Cullen’s match day 23 by season’s end. Ireland sevens captain Tom Daly is another who could benefit from the midfield uncertainty, while U-20 skipper James Ryan looks capable of making an immediate transition into the Leinster set-up.
Jonathan Fitzpatrick, Pundit Arena