2016 is set to be a full on year for Irish rugby, owing to the excitement of a Six Nations title defence, Ulster and Connacht’s potential European odysseys and all provinces being in the mix for the Pro 12 play-offs.
As well as this, Ireland’s three-match tour to the rainbow nation that is South Africa, a glamour tie against the All Blacks set for Chicago’s Soldier Field and a stellar autumn itinerary, there is no doubt the next year will offer countless opportunities for new stars to make a name for themselves.
The following players are relatively new to professional rugby and are set to stand out in 2016. Not included are those players who stood out in 2015, all of whom were covered in a previous article.
Garry Ringrose (Leinster)
A former U-20 Player of the Year nominee, Ringrose has earned the plaudits of Tommy Bowe for his ability having trained with the Irish squad back in 2014. Touted as the new heir to Brian O’Driscoll’s throne, the icon himself has given his appraisal of Ringrose on social media, suggesting that he start against Wales for Ireland’s opening game of the Six Nations.
A strong physical specimen with pace to burn and a silky offloading game accompanied with exceptional running lines, Ringrose is heading on an upward trajectory to be a world-class 13. At the age of 20, Ringrose reads the game extremely well and plays with a fearless maturity. This year, he has been eased into the starting XV at Leinster, posing as a winger originally and only making his preferred move to outside centre in the recent interprovincial derby victory against Munster.
And if his performance was anything to go by that night, Joe Schmidt will come calling sooner rather than later. With Leinster out of Europe, Ringrose should gain European experience in January and gain considerably more game time. He has the ability to be Leinster’s starting 13 and the chances are he will become so at the business end of the season.
Luke McGrath (Leinster)
The former Ireland U-20 captain has been in the Leinster senior set-up for sometime now and has been presented with a few opportunities. He also played for Ireland against the Barbarians in the summer, although it was not a capped international fixture. At the backend of this year, he was showing great form, particularly in the Pro 12 during the World Cup period.
However, an injury sustained recently has seen him largely miss Leinster’s poor European campaign. Once he returns in 2016, his role and influence for Leinster is going to become more important, especially since Eoin Reddan (35) and Isaac Boss (35) enter the final stages of their respective careers.
His exquisite passing, speedy play, terrier-like characteristics and excellent decision-making all bode well for him. Expect to see him become Leinster’s first choice scrum half. If not this season, certainly by this time next year as he will grow in confidence with a consistent amount of starts especially in Leinster’s remaining European pool games.
Rory Scannell (Munster)
Having broken onto the senior scene last season, Scannell has had to wait patiently to move up the pecking order within Munster’s squad. He has been impressive with the opportunities he has been given this season and looks set to be offered further game time as the race for the Pro 12 play-offs speeds up.
He has become a composed player capable of controlling a game from the out-half position, something of which Ian Keatley and Tyler Bleyendaal have come in for criticism of late. In addition, he attacks the gain line well and is a decent passer. These traits have built up his versatility as he can cover fly-half and inside centre.
This week he has been rewarded with a senior contract, suggesting Munster plan to use him at their disposal much more frequently and with Keatley struggling for form at present and Bleyendaal being prone to injury, Scannell may well have to step up to the mark and make fly-half his own during 2016.
Eoghan Masterson (Connacht)
Eoghan Masterson has been a revelation during his time at Connacht and is forecasted to continue this rise as many have identified him as a potential leader for Connacht in the future.
His bruising presence makes him central to winning collisions and bringing the explosiveness needed in a back row unit that labels him a robust ball carrier. More Connacht caps and an Ireland Wolfhounds cap should be achievable ambitions in 2016.
Kyle McCall (Ulster)
Apart from Iain Henderson, Ulster have struggled to produce young forwards of late compared to the amount of backs that they have churned out. However, the faith been given to Kyle McCall this season in the loosehead position has been great to see.
The soon to be 24-year-old is a technically gifted scrummager, and with a strong start to the season, the highlights being his European performances, 2016 looks like it will be an ever improving year for McCall in becoming a regular starter and a household name for Ulster.
Alan O’Connor (Ulster)
Another young Ulster forward to make a big impression in 2016 is lock Alan O’Connor. He has excelled during Dan Tuohy’s absence and is sure to cause selection headaches for coach Les Kiss once the pair train together. He has not been phased by the step up to European rugby and offers a mean presence – a characteristic Ulster can harness to bully opposition packs.
His aerial ability, terrific handling and support play make him a viable option. More consistent starts may well be on the horizon for the youngster. From a national point of view, it is a huge boost for Ireland to see the emergence of O’Connor since the second row at present is an area where Ireland need to build greater depth.
Ultan Dillane (Connacht)
The performances from Ultan Dillane of late have sparked considerable praise among the Connacht coaching staff and fans. He has slotted into Connacht seamlessly, amassing ten caps for the province. This number could be trebled at the end of next year as he becomes a more prominent starter for the Westerners.
He has been highly effective for Connacht, contributing greatly to the engine room of the pack and is a workhorse often putting in many tackles and carries every shift. His athleticism and mobility is another huge plus as are his skills and intent to cover ground. Already a proven player for Connacht, Dillane can take Connacht to a top six finish in the Pro 12.
David Johnston (Munster)
David Johnston is highly-rated within the Munster set-up. The academy man made his debut for the province against Treviso in the Pro 12 this season. He has been a key player for Munster’s A side and could make a huge leap into the first team for 2016, owing to his versatility. He’s able to cover both full back, outside centre and the wing positions.
With Felix Jones’ unfortunate retirement and Lucas González Amorosino hired on a short-term three-month contract, which draws to a close in a couple of months, there is a strong reality that Johnston will feature as a Munster regular in the year ahead as more opportunities look set to come his way. The fact that he is a noted goal kicker as part of his arsenal further supports his credentials.
Peter Nagle, Pundit Arena