Thursday, October 24, 2013

Sink or Swim?

Should young talent be thrown in at the deep end? asks BallHandling Hooker…

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This article is a shorter version of one here.

Let me tell you a story of two scrumhalves. They were born not 40 miles from each other, a year apart. Both were starting on their Junior World Cup teams. Both starred as their teams created huge shocks in beating the mighty baby Boks; and this season, both are first choice for their team, and started and starred in both Heineken Cup games. The only difference between them is that one was included in his country's squad for the November internationals, while the other wasn't.

Why am I telling you this?

Well, it all started over a month ago, when Joe Schmidt originally announced his 41 man squad for a training camp.

The tweets below from Nigel Pearson (@SplottBoy) got me thinking about how young players are given more of a chance in Wales than in Ireland. This week's announcements of squads for the end of year tests emphasised this point with the two scrumhalves.

@BHHooker As a Welsh fan I'm pleased that Ireland are overlooking JJ Hanrahan & Luke McGrath.

— Nigel Pearson (@SplottBoy) September 17, 2013

@BHHooker Cheers - I think Wales/Gats wld have fast tracked players as talented as JJ & McGrath. 'Different strokes for different folks'.

— Nigel Pearson (@SplottBoy) September 17, 2013

Should players be thrown in the deep end?

Well, Ireland don't seem to expose young players to the international arena, a point highlighted by the fact that one of the uncapped players in the Irish squad named this week is 32 year old spring chicken, James Coughlan.

This seems to be how they do it in Wales, and a look at two current British and Irish Lions in their squad, George North and Leigh Halfpenny suggest this. Both capped at just 19 years of age, George North made a huge impact from the beginning, scoring two tries on his debut against South Africa, prompting Bryan Habana to say that Wales had found a real gem; "George looks good enough and mature enough to become one of the greats," said Habana. “You don't say that lightly, but he's laid a great foundation and played a lot better than any 18-year-old I've seen."

While North and Halfpenny are clear success stories of throwing youngsters into the deep end, it hasn't always worked for the Welsh. Remember Tom Prydie? It's nothing to be embarrassed about if you don't. Having just turned 18, Tom Prydie made his senior Welsh debut against Italy in Wales's final game of the 2010 6 Nations. To give you a hint at how his career has gone since then, he made his debut for Wales Under 20s a full two years later. In total, he has 3 Wales senior caps, but at the grand old age of 21, he still has time (and lots of it).

Just ask Gordon D'Arcy. In May 1998, D'Arcy was a talented full-back just finished with the Senior Cup for the last time with Clongowes, and preparing for his Leaving Cert that June. Then, the then coach Warren Gatland surprised many by calling him up for the summer tour to South Africa. D'Arcy declined so he could do his Leaving Cert, and did get his first cap later that year against Romania. The world was at D'Arcy's feet, and he looked set for a full and long career as Ireland's saviour. He was even touted as a bigger prospect than Jonny Wilkinson and Brian O'Driscoll.

And then he nearly blew it. Just two years after declining the call up that would have meant he missed his Leaving Cert; the Irish centre was a mess. Twice he turned up at Leinster training sessions with enough evidence of the night before for club officials to want him sent packing. He had made the Ireland 1999 World Cup squad, but was nothing more than a spectator. From there, things only got worse. So much worse in fact, that he didn't make the 2003 World Cup squad. Worse, it wasn't a story. He had pretty much slipped off the monitor. Matt Williams was his coach at Leinster at the time "There were people who wanted to throw him out. I had to fight hard to get him a contract."

After he vanished off the international radar, it took until friends took him aside and gave him "the best advice I have ever had . . . sending me down the right path for a change".

The change was that he was named the 2004 6 Nations Player of the Tournament, became a British and Irish Lion, and the rest is history. He may have made his debut a few months before O'Driscoll, but that’s why he's 50 caps behind him. In fact, when O'Driscoll was getting his 50th cap, D'Arcy earned his 10th in the same game.

So complete was the turnaround in D'Arcy's fortunes after being thrust into stardom overnight, that it was suggested in media circles that he could help another troubled star when the an early dramatic announcement on the international stage threatened to blow his career.

This troubled star debuted for his country at an early age. A game winning performance in a Six Nations game catapulted him to wider recognition, but his relationship with his high profile girlfriend started to raise questions about his attitude. Further drunken antics and fights with teammates were the beginning of his fall from grace. Since then, he's jumped from team to team, while his antics have continued, dashing any hopes of him fulfilling his promise.

I could have been talking about many players there, and if you had said Danny Cipriani, you would have been wrong.

In 2005, Gavin Henson had the world at his feet. Just like D'Arcy he wasn't in Wales's next World Cup squad, but managed to fight his way back for a Grand Slam. From there, his career effectively ended. If only he had D'Arcy's friends to have set him on the right path. Henson was the 2001 IRB Junior Player of The Year, and never got to fulfil his talent after being released into fame at too young an age.

So which is better? Should you expose young talent to the harsh world of international rugby and let their talent speak for themselves and blossom like George North, or will the spotlight be too much, and lead to off field problems and a downward spiral?

My conclusion is here.

Time will tell if the scrumhalves mentioned earlier will go the same way, or avoid all the traps. And if you haven't guessed already, the scrumhalves are Rhodri Williams and Kieran Marmion.

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