No other Irish U21s or U20s squad has produced as many Lions as the squad from 2012. 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 into 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 onto play international and provincial rugby. Among this ensemble were a varied group of players with worth-while stories.
Second in the Six Nations, fifth at the Junior World Championships. The 2012 Ireland U20s - who were sponsored by PwC - is a case study in the unpredictability of the trajectory of young athletes. The most talented and hyped up stars sometimes do not make the cut, while others fly under the radar and take a scenic route to the top.
Their journey began much like the current 2022 group, with warm-up victories against a Leinster Development XV and an Ulster Ravens side. They were in good stead heading into the Six Nations, guided by Head Coach Mike Ruddock (father of Rhys and head coach of the 2005 Grand Slam winning Welsh team).
One obvious area of interest was the outhalf situation. There were four prospects, one from each province, all looking 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 footballer from Munster who could slot in at centre. Cathal Marsh, an alumnus of St. Michael's College, had lit up the Leinster Schools Senior Cup with eye-catching 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 careers, we would see much fluctuation in the pecking order and fanfare of each player.
The U20s Six Nations began on February 3rd in Dubarry Park against Wales. Ireland ran out 11-6 victors. Jackson and Hanrahan started at 10 and 12, while Marsh took his place on the bench.
Of the future Lions, Iain Henderson and Jack Conan started at lock and number eight respectively, with Tadhg Beirne among the substitutes. Daniel Qualter, a Connacht man who retired in 2020, started ahead of Beirne. Furlong did not feature, and was likely injured.
The next match was a hard earned 13-12 victory over France, followed by straightforward victories over Italy and Scotland in rounds three and four. It set up an away trip to England and a chance at a Grand Slam.
Ireland were soundly beaten 20-9 by an English side that included future Lions Anthony Watson and Kyle Sinckler, with future Ireland and Ulsterman Will Addison starting at 13.
Ireland finished third, level on points with both France and champions England, but behind on points difference. Carty did not feature in the tournament, and Beirne was only afforded a single start.
A Squad of Future Stars
The squad for the 2012 World Championships was named in May, with Tadhg Furlong back. Luckily for Carty however, he was called up to replace Jackson. Jackson was ordered to say home by new Ulster coach Mark Anscombe as he was needed for their pre-season prep.
The squad featured many notable names who would go on to have fine careers, and who are still adding to their CVs.
At scrumhalf there was an ongoing battle that continued for years. Luke McGrath was a prodigious talent off the St. Michael’s conveyor belt, and Marmion was an IQ player born in England to Irish parents and raised in Wales. Although McGrath’s name was more familiar among most fans, having been a Senior Cup starlet, it was Marmion who owned the starting jersey.
The backline also included Munster and Ireland centre Chris Farrell, and ex-Leinster man Barry Daly. Both men took roads less travelled as they worked their way into their provinces first choice 23s over the next five years.
With Ulster being a hotbed for talented centres over the past decade, Farrell made the brave decision to move to the Bernard Jackman coached Grenoble at the beginning of the 2014-15 Top 14 season.
The gamble paid off, and he was rewarded with enough game time in France to grow as a player, which in turn lead to Munster signing him in 2017, followed by Irish caps.
Daly, despite starring for the U20s that summer, was not offered a place in Leinster’s Academy. It was serious blow in his mind and for his self-belief. Speaking after his early retirement in 2019 he said,
“Pretty much everyone when they come up, they think that they’re 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 realise his talents and make another serious attempt at the professional game.
“I was always so thankful that I got to see both sides of the coin. Of the disappointment of being turned down and having to face the real world and also getting the second chance.”
His 2016 trial with Leinster lead to a place in their senior squad. He was one of the fastest players in Ireland, and combined his blistering pace with an eye for the line to finish as Leinster’s top try scorer with 13, in their incredible double winning season of 2017/18. He was also called up to train with the Irish squad.
Ireland’s pack had other familiar names like Munster stalwart Niall Scannell and Ulster stalwart Alan O’Connor. O’Connor was also rejected by the Leinster Academy but has ground out an impressive career as a crucial workhorse in Ulster’s pack.
Leinster flanker Conor Gilsenan, and centre Sam Coghlan-Murray represent a category of player we see in every new crop of U20s. The player who has shown promise since schools level who never quite scale the heights in the professional game.
Gilsenan captained Clongowes to the Leinster Schools Senior Cup title in 2011, before entering the Leinster Academy. It must be noted that making it to the Leinster breeding ground as a flanker, is an incredible achievement in itself.
A brief loan spell at Connacht ensued before he signed for London Irish. He made over 70 appearances for Irish before being forced into retirement in 2020 at the age of 27. You may spot 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 schools star. He was capped for Leinster but never received a senior contract. In 2015 he joined English Championship side Nottingham before retiring in 2016. He currently works as an account executive.
At the Junior World Championships
Ireland’s opening game in the Junior World Championships in South Africawas more than daunting, and it seemed like an inevitable loss would ensue. To get within 10 points would have been commendable.
They faced South Africa, the favourites and eventual winners of that year’s tournament. Ireland had historically struggled at U20s level against the like of 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 a generation of players come of age, and it was littered performances that will go down in U20s lore.
Tadhg Furlong matched up against Kitshoff. At the time Kitshoff was a huge prospect in his country and had already lined out for the Stormers and Western Province in Super Rugby and the Currie Cup. Furlong more than held his own and announced himself to the world as a prop with 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.
However, the stand out player of the team would turn out to be Munster’s JJ Hanrahan, who was only slotting in at 10 due to the absence of Jackson. He lit up the game and the tournament, and lead Ireland to a 23-19 win over South Africa. He was rewarded with a nomination for young player of the year, which was eventually won by Jan Serfontein.
His performances featured an array of kicking, passing, and running highlights. A distinguished career as the heir to Ronan O’Gara for Munster, and Ireland, looked like a potential and perhaps even a likely scenario given the quality of his play.
Ireland would lose to England in what was a cruelly tough group, and ultimately finish second, and miss out on a place in the quarter finals. They finished strongly however, beating England and France in the play-off for 5th place.
As we look at where they are now, it is firm proof that we cannot begin to cast a definitive judgement on a player at that age.
Of the four outhalves, Carty was number four. He is now the only one with Ireland prospects and is comfortably the second best 10 in the country. Marsh played professionally for Rugby United New York before retiring last year. Hanrahan never reached the heights of the summer of 2012 again, but is enjoying a successful stint at 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 scale that summit. Conan was greater than an above average player, but didn’t look like someone who would ever be pushing Toby Faletau out of a Lions starting birth.
Beirne played in Henderson’s shadow that tournament, before he then embarked on one of the most interesting journeys of any current Ireland international. His story of rejection at Leinster and redemption at Scarlets has been well documented, and he is now one of the best players in the world.
With Ireland’s 2022 U20s Six Nations coming up, we will inevitably take out our crystal balls and begin the yearly tradition of choosing our favourite young talents and predicting their futures. While we may get some predictions correct, there will no doubt be many unexpected twists in the careers of the class of 22’.