A Lyttle Bit Special

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As published in InTouch Magazine (IRUPA), November edition.

As Ulster took to the field against Northampton in their last pre-season fixture, one name was at the tip of everybody’s tongue. Charles Piutau took up his position at fullback and duly whetted the appetite for the season ahead with some nice touches and electric breaks. But while it was a promising start for the All Black, it was the performance of a young winger from Donaghcloney that intrigued the Ulster faithful.

On his first start at the Kingspan stadium, Rob Lyttle’s first piece of action was a delightful sidestep and offload to his Kiwi colleague. Within a few moments Lyttle was demonstrating his defensive prowess, while it was his pass that put Louis Ludik away for the game’s first try. As the youngster sized up the subsequent conversion, Dan Tuohy, commentating for Ulster Rugby remarked that he “didn’t know he [Lyttle] could kick,” to which Tommy Bowe replied: “that boy can do everything.”

Not even a first senior appearance in the opening round of the Guinness Pro12 appeared to faze the youngster. Amidst all the fanfare surrounding Ruen Pienaar, Lyttle emerged from the bench as an early replacement for Craig Gilroy to seize another chance in the senior side with aplomb. In claiming two tries, Lyttle inspired Ulster to a 29-8 victory over Newport Gwent Dragons. Lyttle has since featured in all of Ulster’s Pro12 games to date.

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A former student of Royal Belfast Academical Institution, Lyttle made the controversial decision to move to fierce rivals Methodist College Belfast for his final year of school in 2015. As fate would have it, RBAI ultimately prevailed that year but Lyttle’s star was already on the rise. Progressing through the underage representative ranks, the youngster was inevitably picked up by the Ulster Academy.

At just 18, Lyttle featured prominently in the British and Irish Cup for Ulster ‘A’ last year. Despite his tender years, the quality of his performances saw him drafted in as the 24th man for the Pro12 on several occasions. He was simultaneously to the fore as Queen’s University sought promotion from Division 2A of the Ulster Bank League. Given his form, Lyttle was naturally disappointed not to make the U20 Junior World Championship panel in June. However, the Irish 7’s Development squad duly came calling.

With the likes of Piutau, Bowe, Ludik, Gilroy, Jared Payne, Andrew Trimble, Stuart Olding and Jacob Stockdale all potentially vying for places in the back three, Lyttle faces a stern challenge to become further established at Ulster. But after such a blistering start, he has certainly made his mark.

Anthony Foley 1973-2016

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As published in InTouch Magazine (IRUPA), November edition.

When Anthony Foley raised the Heineken Cup aloft in 2006, few in Irish rugby begrudged him of his special task. Munster were finally the European champions – a victory made all the sweeter because it was so hard gained. Such was the enormous outburst of emotion on that day that for a little while, especially for those outside of the Pale, the realities of life seemed not to matter.

No doubt many decent rugby men and women dipped into their imaginations in recent weeks and said that they were there. And they were.

They may have been away down in Ventry where the football fields were empty or taking a break from setting the spuds in Carrigaline – but they were all in Cardiff as Axel led Munster to belated glory.

Television cameras were scarce when Anthony Foley first set off on an odyssey with Munster in 1995. The back rower was part of an exceptionally strong side of part-timers competing in their first ever European Cup fixture and duly dispatching of a professional Swansea unit, yet he could have walked down many a street in the province without being recognised.

But as he departed this field of play on October 16th, an entire nation stood shoulder to shoulder to salute one of the great High Kings of Ireland.

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Trawling through archival footage of the great man’s feats, one might easily assume that his bow came just a fortnight after Munster sidestepped between mythology and fact by conquering the All Black’s and spawning a rugby religion. While 350,000 have also hinted at being in Thomond that day, Anthony’s father Brendan can justifiably claim to being one of them. Munster then, was in the Foley blood.

Throughout his childhood, Foley was steeped in the Munster way of life and its cultural quirks. Some say he was christened in the red garb. Taking to the field on that unremarkable Wednesday evening in November 1995, Foley fulfilled a lifetime ambition and embarked on a mission that would see Munster rise from tales of folklore into a formidable rugby power.

Upon the retirement of the IRUPA Hall of Fame inductee in 2008, the landscape of the game in Ireland had changed dramatically. Yet while money, stardom and success had burrowed into focus, Foley retained an innate understanding of what it was to play for club and country. Having emerged at a time of great uncertainty, he led them both to unprecedented heights and paved the way for those who were to follow. In so doing, he represented a tangible and spiritual link between a rich past and an even richer present.

Surrounded by supreme physical specimens towards the latter stages of his career, Foley appeared to have quantum leaped out of a bygone era (“Domino’s offered free pizza to whoever scored first in the new Thomond Park… Foley got a hat-trick,” recalls Keith Wood). But what he may have lacked in athleticism, he made up for with an awesome rugby brain and a motivation borne out of an undying love for his team, be they in red, green or blue.

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When Foley first togged out on the international stage, his experience contrasted starkly with that of his time with Shannon. Despite scoring a memorable try against England on his debut, Ireland clearly lacked a unity of purpose and retained a sense of barbarism that would struggle to survive in the encroaching professional era. Ten years and 62 caps later, Foley took his leave of a side that was primed for Grand Slam glory.

But while we will always be able to reflect on Axel’s myriad of accomplishments from the base of a scrum and lasting impact on the game at large, it was as a human being that he transcended the rugby community in Ireland. Liked by all, followed by many, his twinkling eyes and glowing smile touched many lives.

If there is any solace to be found amidst this tragedy it is that Anthony Foley died carrying out the duty that he was born to serve. He was the heart and soul of Munster rugby, and in that guise he will always remain.

Heroes get remembered. Legends never die.

Derby Day

As published on PunditArena

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Prior to the introduction of the Celtic League in 2001, interprovincial clashes mattered little to those other than the hardened supporter. Played in the depths of winter, not even those charged with covering the sport bothered to give the fixtures due attention.

Given their ambivalence towards an ‘All-Ireland’ league, Ulster engaged in the series with added impetus, Munster and Leinster put up a token challenge, while Connacht’s endeavours were deemed largely irrelevant. Indeed, according to Edmund van Esbeck, the westerners only managed to claim 22 victories over their three rivals between 1946 and 1999.

Connacht’s recent resurgence however, embodied by their bonus point win over Pro12 leaders Ulster in October, ensures that the provincial weekend continues to provide all that a rugby fan desires.

Leinster 6-30 Munster

Heineken Cup Semi-Final, Lansdowne Road – 23 April 2006

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This was the one that broke new ground. Amidst all the fanfare surrounding Leinster’s heroics in Toulouse, it was Ronan O’Gara who led the nearly men of Munster into the Heineken Cup Final.

In the days leading up to the contest much was made of O’Gara’s impending rendezvous with the mercurial Argentine, Felipe Contepomi. However, buoyed by a sea of red, Munster targeted the hotheaded Puma while O’Gara handed-off Malcolm O’Kelly to sum up what was a miserable afternoon for Leinster.

Connacht 7-6 Leinster

Pro12, Sportground – 26 March 2016

Bundee Aki and Caolin Blade celebrate 26/3/2016

To many it was just a matter of time before Connacht slipped up in their quest for Pro12 glory. Despite an inauspicious start to their campaign, Leinster were a coming force again and expected to trail a blaze to the season’s end.

However, when Kieran Marmion stole over for an opportunistic try after 13minutes prompting a defensive masterclass by his Connacht side, suddenly the rugby world sat up and took notice.

Munster 16- 22 Ulster

Heineken Cup Quarter Final ,Thomond Park – 8 April 2012

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In what was the first meeting between the two sides in the Heineken Cup, Ulster became only the second side to come away from Thomond Park with a victory in 17 years.

Despite going behind early in the game, Munster controlled much of the fixture but weary legs proved to be the undoing of Paul O’Connell’s aging side and Ulster held on for a famous win.

 

Leinster 20-12 Ulster

Magners League, Lansdowne Road – 31 December 2006

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This was the afternoon when Brian O’Driscoll pulled off the original selfie. Making as if to pass to Denis Hickie on the wing, the Irish captain sensationally popped the ball over his teammates head and sailed past a floundering Tommy Bowe.

Losing 12-5 at half time, Leinster scores from Owen Finegan and Jamie Heaslip – the last try ever scored at the old Lansdowne Road – secured a satisfying comeback.

Munster 6-25 Leinster

Heineken Cup Semi-Final, Croke Park – 2 May 2009

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When Felipe Contepomi pulled up with injury, many Leinster fans looked on anxiously as a young pretender entered the fray.

But with Rocky Elsom to the fore, Leinster dominated their rivals in every aspect of the game, including from the pivot where Jonathon Sexton annonched himself on the European stage in kicking and steering his rampant teammates to a 25-6 victory.

Up for the Fight

As published on PunditArena

As Tommy Bowe battled his way back from a knee injury he sustained whilst playing against Argentina in last year’s Rugby World Cup, there were times during his rehabilitation that made him think that he had played his last game of rugby. Having picked up four serious injuries in consecutive seasons, Bowe has endured a luckless second stint with his home province.

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Speaking at the Ulster Public Panel Discussion as part of IRUPA’s Tackle Your Feelings campaign, in partnership with Zurich, the Irish winger admitted that having spent so much time on the sidelines, it’s hard not to question whether he would ever get back on the pitch.

“I’ve chatted with Stephen Ferris and Felix Jones about when you’re told that it’s not going to get any better and that’s always the fear. That’s what keeps you up at night.”

Having undergone kidney surgery just prior to his return to Ulster in 2012, Bowe was then dealt a further blow when he picked up a significant knee injury in December of the same year. While Bowe returned to fitness in time to travel with the Lions to Australia the following summer, a broken hand threatened to rule him out of the series. A groin injury sustained in the narrow defeat to New Zealand then forced him to miss the entirety of the 2014 Six Nations.

“This is my 13th season in professional rugby and I’ve found that mental health has become a huge area of concern in sport. Throughout my career I’ve found it difficult to deal with injury, but it’s equally tough when you are dropped or have a bad game.

“The mental side of sport is so huge nowadays, especially as you’re trying to get the best out of people. A lot of it is about being able to perform under pressure in some big, big games but with that come the highs and the lows. It’s important to work at trying to keep yourself on a level playing field, so that you’d don’t go too high when things are going great and you don’t go too low at the other end.”

Also speaking on the evening were IRUPA CEO Omar Hassanein, Dr. Eddie Murphy, Irish Women’s Sevens International Hannah Tyrrell and former Ulster fullback Bryn Cunningham, who was forced to retire early from the game.

Given the macho perception of the sport, people find it difficult to imagine the players dealing with little more than the bumps and bruises. The panel therefore explored the importance of mental wellbeing and how Ireland needs to be more proactive in resolving emotional challenges before they escalate into a crisis. The discussions were another step towards achieving the vision of a society that embraces emotional vulnerability.

“When I was a teenager, I struggled with my own self-confidence,” Tyrrell admits. “I had low self-esteem and a poor body image. I just viewed myself negatively in every aspect. I developed an eating disorder. For some reason I felt that if I were skinnier or prettier, people might like me, or I might perform better in school or in sport.

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A talented soccer player, Tyrrell turned her attentions to Gaelic Football when the Dublin U14 management came calling. Thereafter she progressed through the ranks to the senior side, winning several All-Ireland titles along the way. But beneath her sporting glory, Tyrrell was facing up to a greater challenge.

“I wasn’t very good at communicating my feelings,” Tyrrell explains. “I took everything on myself and in time I began to restrict my food intake, binging and purging before I began to self-harm.”

Having sought help, rugby provided Tyrrell with an outlet to grow, develop and indeed take stock of her experiences.

“I took up rugby in 2013 just after the women had won the Grand Slam. As I was very sporty and ambitious, it was always something that I thought I’d love to try. I was just coming out of my recovery and so I needed it to keep me on the right track and provide another goal to focus on. Rugby aside, the camaraderie I’ve enjoyed and the friends I’ve met means it’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

“I’m very thankful I went to rugby training that evening.”

Pat Lam helps his Players to Tackle Their Feelings

“People come down to the Sportsground and look at our bench. It’s filled with a management team that stretches the length of the dugout and beyond. They ask what role each person fulfils. I agree with them in saying that if I was just coaching a rugby team, you wouldn’t need all those people. In fact all you’d require is the head coach and a couple of assistants.

But, you see, it’s not just about the rugby…”

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When Pat Lam first toyed with the idea of donning a tracksuit and dishing out instruction, he approached Ian McGeechan his coach at Northampton, for some advice. The British and Irish Lions legend posed a simple question to his captain: “Pat, why do you want to coach?”

On Tuesday night the former Samoan international was speaking at the Connacht Rugby Public Discussion in the G Hotel, as part of IRUPA’s Tackle Your Feelings campaign, in partnership with Zurich. The product of several years of research, IRUPA and Zurich’s initiative has given professional players the platform to engage and address their mental well-being.

Lam would have been particularly impressed by the maturity of one of his own charges as he articulated the difficulties he faced as a youngster growing up in New Zealand. Jake Heenan spoke candidly about losing his way as a teenager including bouts of anti-social behaviour that ultimately led to him being kicked out of his home.

While rugby offered the former captain of the All Blacks’ U-20 side a pathway out of trouble, Lam presented the 24-year-old with an opportunity to leave his past behind and join an intriguing project in the west of Ireland. Having joined in May 2013, Heenan can now set his sights on wearing the green of his adopted home on the international stage having qualified earlier this year.

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Heenan was joined on the panel by Dr. Eddie Murphy of RTÉ’s Operation Transformation, Connacht’s most capped player, Michael Swift, and Cathal Sheridan, the former Munster scrum half who has struggled with injury throughout his career.

“I try to ensure that any of my teams have all the tools required to survive and thrive both on the field of play and off it,” Lam continued.

“Often it is family that equips you with those tools and the best families are created by the best environments. I have tried to create something similar at Connacht. Many would agree that our team spirit is our biggest strength.”

In an effort to help foster that familial mentality, Lam has sought to have his players engage on a more wholesome level. While they think little of sweating blood for each other on match days, the tendency is for players to resile in their own bubble once the day’s work is complete. Lam has therefore reintroduced an old Connacht tradition whereby a player offers their own personal story to the group. This week it was the turn of Heenan.

Heenan’s story in particular will resonate with many young people throughout the country. Although he never suffered from any mental health condition, the player acknowledged his difficulties and demonstrated tremendous courage in coming forward from a world that espouses the macho ideal of mental and physical toughness.

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“The main feeling I had through this was fear, fear of the unknown, and anger, which was a direct result of being afraid.

“I think it’s important that everyone recognises that we all have our own problems and issues,” Heenan said.

It would appear then that, alongside the work of IRUPA, Pat Lam is helping people to realise their true potential.

“I see young people enter the game as rugby players, but I see them exit as better people.

“That’s the reason why I want to coach.”

Over the coming weeks IRUPA and Zurich will host further panel discussions at the Kingspan Stadium, Belfast on Tuesday October 4 and at Lansdowne Rugby Club, Dublin on Wednesday October 12.

To watch Jake’s video, and for more information on Tackle Your Feelings, click here.

Joey Carbery: An Understudy?

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Dublin , Ireland – 26 August 2016; Joey Carbery of Leinster during the Pre-Season Friendly game between Leinster and Bath at Donnybrook Stadium in Donnybrook, Dublin. (Photo By Matt Browne/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

 

Graham Henry believes that both Leinster and Ireland will have no need to worry once Jonny Sexton hangs up his boots, or so the story goes. Gordon D’Arcy would tend to agree, while Rob Kearney has been similarly impressed by Joey Carbery’s start to the 2016/2017 season.

“We’ve seen his potential over the past number of months on a daily basis and obviously he starred for Clontarf last year,” the Irish fullback said. “It’s important that guys are rewarded for how they are performing and you saw how superb he was [against Treviso]. He showed that he’s right at home at this level.” High praise indeed. But just who is Joey Carbery?

A relatively new face to Irish rugby fans, the young out-half took little time to introduce himself to the most critical analysts of all. Within the first three minutes of his career in professional rugby, Carbery’s sleight of foot and strength in contact saw him go under the posts for Leinster’s first try of the season. Another effort later in the half further exhibited his attacking flair. Picking up a loose ball just shy of his own 22, Carbery slipped a tackle before showing plenty of gas to race clear and step outside the last line of defence.

Yet we need not be fooled by his Kiwi accent. Having moved to the country from his native New Zealand at the age of 11, Carbery is very much a product of the Irish development system having progressed through both the clubs’ and schools’ scene.

“I was born with a rugby ball in my hand,” he admits, speaking to Pundit Arena. “My father, my grandfather and his father before him all played rugby to a decent level back at home. Dad played representative rugby until he moved to Ireland at 21 and met my mother. In time they moved back to Auckland where I was born.” When settling in his mother’s homeland of Athy a number of years later, Carbery quickly became involved with the local rugby club and developed his game under the influential tutelage of his father, a former half back for the Blackrock College club.

“I played up to U19s at Athy. I was always involved in the older teams. We always had a good bunch of guys there so no matter what grade I played with we seemed to get to a Leinster final. We never won but we always seemed to be there or thereabouts. The only problem was that Blackrock were always there too.”

Having tasted representative rugby as a scrum half with Leinster Youths, Carbery sensed that schools’ rugby might offer the clearest path into the professional game. He, therefore, jumped at the opportunity to go to Blackrock College for his final year of schooling.

“There was a lot more training involved and a bit more structure than I had ever been used to at Athy. Personally, it was probably more in line with my own thinking of how I needed to progress my game if I was to have any hope of pushing on. We had a great side too which helped. Nick Timoney, Jeremy Loughman – I think every one of us played provincial rugby at some level.”

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Carbery was deployed at full back and Sean Kearns (currently leading St. Mary’s impressive start to the UBL season), featured at out half as Blackrock prevailed to claim their 68th Senior Cup title following an exciting win over Clongowes Wood in the final. But while his rugby motives were vindicated, Carbery was equally determined to get a good Leaving Certificate. This year he continues his Sports and Exercise Management course at UCD. Although his education remains of importance, Carbery’s growing role in Leinster will undoubtedly have shifted his ranking of priorities.

“I’ve worked hard on my game, but I’m only just starting out. There are many more years of work ahead. The pace of the PRO12 was a definite step up from the UBL. I’m beginning to get a grasp on it but I had to adapt my game slightly at the outset.

“Not for one moment did I think I could make an impact in that manner. The management would appear to have belief in me in that they’ve been given a bit of freedom to bring my own game to the table – to play to the line and whatever is in front of me. From time to time, when I push the boat out a little too far, they’ll pull me back and canvas the safe option but that’s all part of the learning experience. I’m just trying to enjoy every bit of it at the moment.”

With Jonny Sexton making an impressive return to the fray in the Friday’s 31-19 victory over the Ospreys, Carbery had to make do with a late cameo off the Leinster bench. Despite his remarkable start to the season, the youngster is all too aware that his early season form will need to continue should he wish to remain involved. While Ian Madigan’s departure has created a void below Sexton, Carbery, Cathal Marsh and Ross Byrne have all feasibly targeted the understudy role.

“Ross and I have been toe-to-toe for a number of years now. I struck it lucky with the Irish U20s when he got injured for the Junior World Championships in 2015. Ross had started throughout the Six Nations earlier that year and had played extremely well. It’s never nice to see a mate get injured, but when my opportunity arose, I had to take it and I felt that I had a decent tournament. Momentum has continued to build ever since.”

Such impetus was carried into the Ulster Bank League season last year as Carbery led Clontarf’s assault on the title. Following his Man of the Match performance in their victory over Cork Constitution in the final, coach Andy Wood duly remarked that he was resigned to losing their “special player” to the professional ranks. The player though will always fondly remember his time with the club.

“At Blackrock we had everything going for us. We were the dominant side throughout the year. But at Clontarf we didn’t make it easy for ourselves. A few trips to Munster in the depths of winter didn’t exactly suit our style! We really had to work at our all-round game. We had some serious talent in that side though with Conor O’Brien, who’s now in the Leinster Academy and the likes of Mick McGrath who’s also in and out of the Leinster set-up. It’s probably my greatest achievement to date.”

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Going into this campaign as fourth choice below Byrne and Marsh, Carbery’s graceful and at times steely game has seen him stick his neck out ahead of his rivals. “Ross and I were in the Academy together and Cathal Marsh was just a few years ahead. We all know each other quite well at this stage. We’re all competitive but the reality is that they’re really nice guys and we do what we can to help each other out. There’s a lot of give and take, which can only be healthy from both an individual and collective perspective.”

A quiet and mannerly young man, Carbery is not short of confidence in his own game – a telling trait in an aspiring out half. Given his form and potential, it is increasingly likely that Joe Schmidt will invite Carbery to join up with an extended Irish squad ahead of the November internationals. The youngster remains unfazed.

“My immediate goal is to get into the Leinster team every week, even when Johnny is available for selection. As one of the best in the game, I try to learn as much as I can from him, but ultimately I have to hope to oust him from the team.

“He’s very helpful but you learn more by watching him. He wouldn’t be one of these guys that take you under their wing, advising you on various aspects of your game. He trusts that you haven’t just fallen into that position so he expects you to be of the standard that Leinster deserves – and he knows what your objective is!”

“But who knows… maybe New Zealand will come calling before then!”

Ireland: Five Surprise Selections Schmidt Could Make Ahead Of The November Internationals

Ireland’s recent endeavours in South Africa have shown the merits of introducing a dash of freshness into the camp. Several fringe players put their hands up in the intimidating environments of Cape Town, Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth.

While they ultimately failed to finish out the job, several of the more inexperienced troop will have undoubtedly benefitted from the experience. Many of those will now look forward to playing important roles as Ireland seek to secure their first ever win against the All Blacks

Joe Schmidt has often been criticised for neglecting to pick untried, albeit form, players and that is unlikely to change as he chases that elusive victory over New Zealand. Lists of this nature therefore often tend to be a fruitless exercise. However, now that he is believed to have committed his long-term future to the country, perhaps he will consider those who will be at the heart of the side he is due to depart in 2019.

The likes of Garry Ringrose and Ross Molony have long been touted for international recognition, but there are several others who are more than capable of making the step up and contributing to both the short and long-term future of Ireland.

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Joey Carberry

Following his brief consultancy period with Leinster, Graham Henry apparently stated that Irish rugby need not fear for the day that Jonny Sexton hangs up his boots. The reason? Joey Carberry.

Entering into the season as Leinster’s fourth choice out-half behind Cathal Marsh and Ross Byrne, Carberry grasped his opportunities with aplomb and has been a revelation when tasked with steering the Leinster ship.

While Sexton’s return may hamper Carberry’s immediate first team hopes, the Auckland-born youngster has shown enough quality to suggest that he is at home at this level and is destined to thrive. There are aspects to his game that will undoubtedly need tending to, but his raw footballing ability and attacking nous ensures that an exciting future lies ahead of him.

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Dublin , Ireland – 26 August 2016; Joey Carbery of Leinster during the Pre-Season Friendly game between Leinster and Bath at Donnybrook Stadium in Donnybrook, Dublin. (Photo By Matt Browne/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

With a two-try salvo against Treviso in the opening game of the Pro 12, Carberry announced himself on the domestic scene in some style. Needless to say, Joe Schmidt will certainly have noticed his compatriot’s impact.

As has been Schmidt’s want, Carberry can expect to be invited along to train with an extended Irish panel ahead of the November series. Should his form continue apace, he has every right to be included on merit. Carberry turns 21 on the eve of Ireland’s game against the All Blacks, but while he may yet be too young to be thrust onto the highest of test stages, he stands a reasonable chance of being Paddy Jackson’s standby when Ireland take on the Canadians.

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Jack O’Donoghue

Rassie Erasmus was left angered when Jack O’Donoghue was stretchered from the field during Munster’s 28-14 win over Edinburgh on Saturday. Thankfully, the 22-year-old returned to the sidelines before the end of the game, but such has been his influence that O’Donoghue has become an integral part of the South African’s plan for the province.

Despite having received a call-up to the Six Nations squad ahead of Ireland’s fixtures against Italy and Scotland, Schmidt resisted any temptation to summon O’Donoghue to South Africa in the summer opting instead for Ulster’s Sean Reidy and Rhys Ruddock of Leinster.

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Yet competition on the international front is as fierce as ever. The likes of Jamie Heaslip and CJ Stander remain top of the pile, Tommy O’Donnell remains in the mix while Josh van der Flier’s return to form at the weekend will not help O’Donoghue’s claims.

However, with Sean O’Brien and Peter O’Mahony still on the comeback trail, O’Donoghue’s impressive early-season form means that Schmidt can’t overlook the Munster man. With all the tools to be a top class No. 8, Jamie Heaslip’s eternal tenure at the base of the Irish scrum may ultimately give way to the Waterford man.

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Darren Sweetnam

While Rob Lyttle has been grabbing all the headlines with several notable performances for Ulster already this season, Darren Sweetnam has become a central figure in Erasmus’ Munster revolution.

The former Cork hurler joined the academy in October 2012 but struggled to make much of an impact whilst several of his colleagues pushed on. Erasmus now refers to the outside back as one of his ‘go-to men’ and simply puts his gradual progression down to his distracted rugby beginnings.

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Although the back three department is a congested space, Sweetnam’s attributes are sure to have found their way onto Joe Schmidt’s radar. Defensively sound, tricky in attack and dominant in the air, the Bandon man is technically superior to a number of those at Schmidt’s disposal. If he continues in this vein, Sweetnam will get his opportunity in green sooner rather than later.

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Dan Leavy

Highly regarded at Leinster, Leavy was pinpointed as a potential back row star of the future before Josh van der Flier jumped the queue and became an international player during the 2016 Six Nations.

Finally, having endured a sometimes-difficult beginning to his professional career, Leavy has seemingly overcome his injury problems to feature regularly in the Leinster side this season.

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Featuring in all of the opening games of this campaign, Leavy has proven himself to be a valuable asset in Leo Cullen’s squad. Ironically, given that it is one of Leavy’s principle attributes, his versatility may have counted against him last weekend.

Having been shifted about between 6, 7 and 8 (performing well in each) Leo Cullen preferred to call upon more regular custodians of those shirts in Heaslip, Van der Flier and Jordi Murphy on for the Ospreys’ visit to the RDS, while it was Rhys Ruddock who first emerged from the bench to replace the latter.

However, with several prominent displays already, including a superb evening in Edinburgh where he claimed two tries, Leavy’s resourcefulness stands his international prospects in good stead.

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Alan O’Connor

International recognition would be a fitting chapter in Alan O’Connor’s story.

Rejected by Leinster, O’Connor’s career seemed to be written off before it had even begun. Having failed to make the Ireland U-20s side for the Six Nations in 2012, O’Connor was subsequently included in the travelling party to the Junior World Championship in South Africa. However, before the squad flew out O’Connor was informed that he would have no place in the Leinster Academy upon his return. Allen Clarke of Ulster duly capitalised.

Despite Franco van der Merwe, Pete Browne, Dan Tuohy and O’Connor all competing for a spot in Ulster’s second-row, the 24-year-old has managed to become the frontrunner for the position on a weekly basis.

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Following Paul O’Connell’s retirement last year, Schmidt has looked to several options to fill a considerable void. One of those, O’Connor’s Ulster colleague Iain Henderson (the man many see as being the most capable of filling those considerable boots), has been regularly shifted to accommodate the in-form Dubliner.

Furthermore, in what was something of a surprise, Connacht’s Quinn Roux earned a call-up in the summer and acquitted himself well. On that basis, O’Connor can’t be too far away.