"An unbelievable find" - Brian Gleeson and five other Ireland prospects to watch in the URC
"He's going to be a real good player for Munster and hopefully Ireland in the next couple of years."
When Stephen Ferris gets excited about a back-row prospect, you circle the name in red pen. When that prospect is Brian Gleeson, you circle around the circle you already made, a few months back.
Ahead of the opening weekend of the new United Rugby Championship season, Viaplay pundits Stephen Ferris, Chris Paterson and Shane Williams gave us 16 players to watch. Rugby fans will know many of them already but there are a handful that could push themselves into Test match consideration with strong starts to the 2023/24 campaign.
While Ferris admitted he struggles to confidently name the best back row of Ulster, his old side, he is excited by the young players breaking through at Munster, the reigning URC champs.
It's going to be interesting to see if Craig Casey gets a really good run in the Munster jersey this season, Will Connor Murray keep playing? I think he's under national contract for until the end of the season, but will there be a change in the guard there, especially with Jack Crowley as well.
Will this season see a 9/10 partnership tried out, and given a run? Not just for Munster or Leinster, but with Ireland in mind. You could possibly see Jamison Gibson-Park paired with young Sam Prendergast or Harry Byrne. I'd just like to keep an eye on that because it's such an important axis for Ireland. I don't see it being that Leinster-Munster mix - I could see it being a pair from the provinces that are playing regularly, week in and week out.
Up at Ulster, Harry Sheridan (below) seems like a hard player; a good prospect. He played against La Rochelle last year. He can play back row or second row and has a little bit of edge to him, you know, a bit of a nasty edge about him. They could play him 6 (blindside) or second row. He's somebody that's got a hell of a lot of potential, and he's obviously very raw.
Then you have somebody like Joe McCarthy, who I think he's a very coachable player and has that presence about him. Going back to Sam Prendergast, you wonder how much game time he is going to get this season, with Harry and Ross Byrne there. We'll wait and see.
Looking at some of the other Ireland U20s, the No.8 at Munster, Brian Gleeson. There's chat coming out that Pete O'Mahony might not play as much this season. And is Gavin Coombes the answer for Ireland? It seems, right now anyway, that he's probably not.
So Gleeson could be an unbelievable find, to come into another World Cup cycle. I watched him with the Under 20s and he's a big lad. He's so explosive, he makes yards for fun and he eats people up. He's going to be a real good player for Munster and hopefully Ireland, in the next couple of years.
There's a number of Welsh players I could name, and will name, but I was just talking to Chris (Paterson) there and I'm just such a big fan of Darcy Graham. He's absolute quality.
What he did in the World Cup was so impressive. Unfortunately, he got injured against Ireland but players like that really make me wanna watch rugby again. Players that have that work rate, that come off their wing, score lots of tries, are aggressive and gutsy in defence. He's very similar to Rio Dyer at the Dragons, as well. Rio worked his socks off at this World Cup and just unfortunately didn't get on the end of any passes to show what he could do with ball in hand.
The big one for me, again, is homegrown. I'm really interested to see how Jac Morgan goes after becoming the captain of Wales. He's been one of the top performers in the URC for a number of years now. I don't really remember him having a quiet or an average game, to be perfectly honest. Wales got knocked out of the quarter final stages, which can be damaging. But i think he's the sort of player that can brush it off and look to put that effort back into the Ospreys.
Sam Prendergast is somebody that I've seen play Under 20s and I know what a talented a player he is. There was talk of him potentially going to Connacht, even for a season or two, and coming back to Leinster. But he is obviously staying there and is someone really worth keeping an eye on.
Jake Polledri, over at Zebre, is not really a youngster but he is new to the league and he really is a phenomenal player. He looks like the hardest man on earth to tackle and he's not even the biggest back row going. I'm interested to see how he goes in a team that has struggled, so good to keep track of.
In terms of a player in Wales, Ioan Lloyd. He is one of the Welsh guys that played at Bristol but is now coming back to Scarlets. They have recruited well, and retained quite a few decent players. They league could suit him, from what I've seen. He's kind of an all-rounder and can play from 10 to 15. This could be a platform for him to show his stuff.
There are plenty of young players in Scotland. We're aware of someone like Rory Darge, for instance, but he really has something special. There's Jamie Dobie at Glasgow. You wonder how much time he might get, with Ali Price and George Horne there, but he's definitely one to look at in the next cycle.
Over to Edinburgh, somebody we know of but who is still quite young is Ewan Ashman. If he can deliver on his set-pieces, he's shown that he's a lad that can score some pretty stunning tries, carry and have big moments. He's quick as a flash, really aggressive as a ball handler and in defence.
There's another one that we've not heard so much of, but he has been training well and played the opening couple of pre-season matches. A young fullback called Nathan Sweeney.
He's came through the academy, he's been injured a little bit, played Under 18s and hasn't played too much Under 20s. But I know the coaches there rate him very highly.
Stephen Ferris on Munster's late surge
Stephen Ferris, meanwhile, expects reigning champions Munster to be challenging for United Rugby Championship honours again, this time around.
“It was a weird one,” said the former Ulster and Ireland flanker. "Munster were the fourth placed Irish province at the start of last season.
"That was all the chat around the country, that Munster were now the worst province. Then they grew throughout the season and it’s turned on its head. They are now the number one and we are all trying to chase them down. You have to give them credit that they found their way during the season. It wasn’t pretty at times and it wasn’t perfect, but they were able to just peak at the right time.
"Graham Rowntree has been used to semi-finals and finals throughout his rugby career and that came through in the way the lads performed for him. That semi-final against Leinster was honestly one of the best games of rugby I have ever witnessed. It was unbelievable. The quality of rugby was excellent. I fully expect those two sides to be up challenging again this year and Munster will certainly want to defend their title."
Reflecting on the league as a whole, Ferris, who is part of the Viaplay TV team broadcasting every BKT URC game live throughout the season, said: “What we all wanted three years ago was for the league to become much more competitive and that’s exactly what has happened.
“Going away from home is really a big struggle now. It’s a little bit like the French Top 14 where you target all your home games and try and nick two or three away to get into the play-offs.
“You might have one or two teams that are always sitting at the top of the log, but there is going to be so much fighting for those other five or six places in the top eight. It’s ultra competitive.”
*Stephen Ferris is part of the Viaplay team bringing live coverage of every BKT United Rugby Championship game. All 151 fixtures are live on Viaplay throughout the season from round one to the Grand Final. To celebrate the new URC season, rugby fans can enjoy a FREE MONTH of subscription to Viaplay and all its channels. Just visit www.viaplay.com for more details and enter the code URCFREEMONTH. Offer available to Sky and Viaplay streaming platform only.
MIKE ROSS & JOHNE MURPHY ON HOUSE OF RUGBY
Round 1 (URC opening weekend)
- Sat 21 Oct: Zebre Parma v Ulster - 1pm
- Sat 21 Oct: Connacht v Ospreys - 3pm
- Sat 21 Oct: Emirates Lions v DHL Stormers - 3.05pm
- Sat 21 Oct: Dragons RFC v Edinburgh - 3.05pm
- Sat 21 Oct: Cardiff Rugby v Benetton - 5.15pm
- Sat 21 Oct: Munster v Cell C Sharks - 5.15pm
- Sun 22 Oct: Vodacom Bulls v Scarlets - 2pm
- Sun 22 Oct: Glasgow Warriors v Leinster - 4pm
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