Garry Ringrose has never played in the Six Nations before – but he’s already being hailed as Ireland’s best prospect since Brian O’Driscoll.
Comparisons will inevitably be made with the legendary centre and former Irish captain. After all, Ringrose wears the number 13, played for Blackrock, UCD, Leinster and didn’t start his rugby career as a centre.
But the 22-year-old new kid on the block appears destined to make a name for himself and his entry into the Six Nations fray is keenly anticipated.
Ireland coach Joe Schmidt was careful not to throw Ringrose into the international arena too early. But the emerging player is regarded as a young man with a mature head in his shoulders, someone well equipped to handle hype and huge media attention.
But, what makes him so special? What are the qualities that had O’Driscoll himself calling for the Leinster lad to be included in Ireland’s last Six Nations campaign?
“He has been anointed the next Brian O’Driscoll. Brian was similar at that age, efficient and solid,” says Eddie O’Sullivan, Ireland’s coach from 2001 to 2008.
“Garry’s trademark is he is incredibly efficient. Young players make bloopers, but he doesn’t make mistakes. It’s important to remain calm under pressure and then when your opportunity comes, you take it.
“Brian didn’t make mistakes and then he stepped up. No-one expected him to score a try in Paris in 2000, but he scored three.
“Then no-one expected him to score that try against Australia for the Lions a year later, but he did. These are the moments. They came to him and he took them. Then he kicked on, kept improving.”
Ringrose made his senior Ireland debut in the autumn international against Canada last November, a week after being an unused replacement in that historic win over the All Blacks in Chicago.
He then scored his first international try in the exciting 27-24 win over Australia in Dublin.
The college kid who grabbed his chance
Ringrose played his school rugby for Blackrock College in Dublin, although when he joined the senior side, he wasn’t seen as one of their better players.
Hopping from number nine to 15 and not being offered a permanent position, he kept his head down and eventually an injury opened up a spot at 13.
After the switch, he remained their kicker and his points tally propelled Blackrock to the Leinster Senior Cup. Suddenly people were asking who this guy was and he was off to UCD with a glowing reputation.
Bobby Byrne, the Director of Rugby at UCD, recalls: “I first came across Gary in that run to the Senior Cup. He wasn’t overly recognised at that stage but suddenly he was having a significant impact for the team.
“He had composure, was an elusive runner and was really courageous. He hadn’t the biggest frame, but he had a good bit of pace to finish off.
“He had, and still has, a great temperament. He is a very balanced guy. The rate of improvement since he has left school has been phenomenal.
“He has improved every year and he’s conscious that he always needs to improve, so his discipline on and off the pitch is great. He has all the things that you need to succeed.”
‘He is an amazing talent’
Former Ireland international backs Tony Ward and Jonny Bell are excited about what impact Ringrose can have on this year’s Six Nations.
Ward, who starred in a famous Munster win over New Zealand in 1978, says: “He showed us his mental strength in that Australia game last autumn.
“With Robbie Henshaw injured and when Jared Payne came off, he went from being the third or fourth choice to a guy at the top of the heap.
“He really stepped up and I just think he is an amazing talent. He is the player I am most looking forward to seeing in this year’s Six Nations.”
Ulster man Bell knows a thing or two about spotting talent. A decorated centre himself, he’s now one of the coaches at Gloucester.
Again, comparisons with other Irish 13s were impossible to avoid.
“Everyone keeps likening him to Brian O’Driscoll. He can find space, he’s elusive and can break tackles.
“He has good leg drive. At this level, you have to have ability. To work against these hard defensive systems, you must have that innate natural ability, and Garry has that in droves.”
Right qualities for modern game
According to Bell, Ringrose definitely has the ability and mental strength to succeed, but those qualities need to be complemented by hard work.
“He has a very diligent approach, and that is very important in the modern game,” adds Bell.
“If you look at the likes of Danny Cipriani, he had amazing ability but he hasn’t really produced what he is capable of. He’s done well, but not hit the heights he maybe could have because of outside distractions.”
By all accounts, Ringrose has the right mix to succeed at the very top level.
If he keeps improving, that step up from first class to world class will seem to be a ‘when’ rather than an ‘if’.
Let’s leave the last word to Girvan Dempsey who won 82 Ireland caps between 1998 and 2008 and is now Leinster’s backs coach.
“Dealing with him right from the off, even from 17, you could tell he was rugby-smart. He just got it,” said former full-back Dempsey.
“He just bounces onto the training field. And we’re just constantly looking forward to seeing what’s going to come next.
“Garry loves expressing himself, and certainly we’d never, ever want to curb that in any way because it’s so refreshing.
“Hopefully he’ll just keep getting better and better as time goes on.”