For a successful team like Ireland, evolution is important. Head coach Andy Farrell has often stressed this. And for a team to evolve, emerging talent must be given the chance to flourish.
Of all the positives Farrell can take from the opening two rounds of the Six Nations, the performances of the more fresh-faced members of his squad is perhaps the greatest.
Joe McCarthy, 22, was the best player on the pitch on his championship debut against France. A behemoth of a second row, McCarthy’s assured displays in Marseille and against Dublin in Italy offered Irish fans an exciting glimpse of the future in that position.
Further back, two Munster men – Jack Crowley and Calvin Nash – have slotted seamlessly into Farrell’s winning machine. Nash had just one cap prior to the Six Nations. He now has three and a couple of tries to his name. Mack Hansen has not been missed as much as first feared.
Crowley, of course, carried the heaviest expectations into the tournament because of the position he plays and the man he is replacing.
Johnny Sexton’s retirement was the most dreaded moment in Irish rugby for years.
While Crowley’s presence at out-half does not yet strike the same fear into opponents as Sexton’s did, the 24-year-old has demonstrated enough class and mettle in his first two starts as Farrell’s first-choice to show the road ahead for Ireland.
Big Joe, big future
A year can make a big difference. Having earned his first cap in Ireland’s win over Australia in November 2022, McCarthy was robbed of a possible Six Nations debut by injury a few months later.
He did, however, make Farrell’s World Cup squad and scored a try against Romania. While the more experienced second rows carried Ireland to the quarter-finals, McCarthy did enough in his 80-minute run-out in Bordeaux to make people sit up and take notice.
Now they are past noticing him. They are raving about him.
“Speaking from experience, when you have a barnet like that, you have got to play well. And my god did that boy play well,” was Ireland legend and ITV pundit Brian O’Driscoll’s assessment of McCarthy’s efforts against France.
‘Big Joe’, who stands 6ft 6in and weighs 112kg, also attracted praise on social media as the clip of him giving his brother Andrew his player of the match medal went viral after the win over France.
He has seemingly taken it all in his stride, but he does admit to having felt the increased attention in recent weeks.
“There is way more attention in the Six Nations, you can feel it, much more than club games,” he said.
“It is good, you are getting a lot of nice mentions; you’re trying to block it out and just go back to the process. I felt I was ready to go at that stage [in the 2023 Six Nations] but an ankle injury kept me out for a few months.
“That happens. It’s great to get an opportunity now and I am looking forward to it.”
McCarthy is also a big NFL fan. Ireland fans can relax though. Unlike Wales star Louis Rees-Zammit, he says he isn’t planning switching sports anytime soon.
Even without ‘Sexton aura’, Crowley has shone
While McCarthy has confidently shot up an already crowded second row depth chart, Crowley has had to step into the sizeable void left at 10.
He has done so with aplomb. Given the intense glare on his every move, Crowley’s imperfect displays are no surprise. He has nailed tough conversions and missed easier ones. He’s had a few kicks charged down.
The Munster back has, however, conducted the Irish orchestra impressively, especially during an electric first-half display against Italy that yielded – rather remarkably – his first senior try.
Crowley looked less assured when he shifted to full-back for the closing stages of the Italy game following Hugo Keenan’s injury, but the gusto and swagger he displayed at 10 has clearly not gone unnoticed his team-mates.
“He’s got a lot of pressure on him, there have been some world-class 10s come before him,” James Lowe said of Crowley.
“He’s taken it in his stride, bossing it around week to week.
“He hasn’t quite got that Sexton aura about him. He hasn’t got the stare down yet. He’s awesome, he growing into it.”
Crowley’s credentials face further scrutiny in the coming weeks, perhaps most intensely in the Twickenham cauldron in four weeks, but it has been a stellar start.
Nash no longer doubting himself
There has been less noise made about Nash, but with tries to his name already, the 26-year-old has a platform from which he can build as Ireland’s back-to-back Grand Slam bid heats up.
One of the stars of the Emerging Ireland’s South African tour in 2022, Nash made his Test debut in a World Cup warm-up win over Italy but was quickly cut from the squad.
After marking his Six Nations debut with a try in France, Nash was not afraid to show his vulnerable side.
“I think at the start of the week I had a bit of self-doubt,” he admitted. “I was thinking: ‘You don’t really have any international experience at all.’
After speaking to Farrell, team psychologist Gary Keegan and Munster great Keith Earls, Nash rediscovered his confidence.
It brought him a try in Marseille and another in Dublin. Hansen, who will not feature in this year’s Six Nations, is adored by the Irish fans.
Nash isn’t quite there yet, but he’s going the right way about giving Farrell another selection headache when Hansen returns to fitness.