Young guns are giving Ulster reason to be optimistic
No secret has been made of the fact that if Ulster Rugby are to build their way back into silverware contention, then improved output from their Academy will be the key.
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While the likes of Iain Henderson and Jacob Stockdale have moulded themselves into bonafide international stars, such cases have been few and far between since a production line that had delivered the likes of Andrew Trimble, Stephen Ferris, Tommy Bowe and Chris Henry in quick succession ground to a halt.
With Kieran Campbell and Willie Anderson having led the province's 'A' side to the quarter-finals of the soon-to-be defunct British and Irish Cup for two seasons in a row, there has been tempered enthusiasm about the current crop of under-age players, with both men insisting they see plenty of potential.
Those who are observers solely of the senior side got a glimpse of the talent coming down the track in Friday night's 32-20 win over Edinburgh, where 19-year-old Tom O'Toole started in the No.3 jersey.
A native of Drogheda who spent a decade of his formative years in Australia before returning to these shores and boarding at Campbell College, he has long been thought a player with a highly promising career ahead of him.
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With Michael Lowry and James Hume enduring injury interrupted starts to life in the Academy, O'Toole has been seen as the prospect to watch this season and was impressive for the Irish Under-20s in the recent Six Nations despite the presence of the highly-rated Jack Aungier in the same position.
His senior debut for Ulster on Friday continued the theme. He was robust in the loose, totalling nine largely dynamic carries, while he made all 12 of his tackles without a miss.
There was a creaking scrum, Edinburgh scoring one of their tries through the set-piece, but on the whole this was a hugely encouraging first appearance.
Andy Warwick, who propped on the other side of the scrum, said: "It was great to see young boys coming in and Tommy O'Toole played really well. It was great to see Matt Dalton too.
"We fought in the scrum against an experienced Edinburgh pack and I think Tommy did well.
"Obviously they have a lot more experience than us in the scrum but I thought we were fighting really well and at the end of the second half we fought back into it."
With Matt Dalton starting at lock, Mattie Rea in the back-row and Angus Curtis and Tommy O'Hagan both unused substitutes, it was certainly a fresh-looking panel, with Operations Director Bryn Cunningham stating there will be an increased focus on giving young players a chance moving forward.
"We will reduce the size of our squad going into next season because the big focus for us is blooding those younger players a bit more," he said. "It's important we get them more game time and make it quite organised so we're looking at a guy and saying, 'He needs five or six games this season, how do we factor that in?'
"If he's got four or five guys ahead of him in a position then that's going to be very difficult to manufacture unless there are significant injuries.
"There's a small risk element to it in that if you reduce your squad to a point where if you do have significant injuries in a number of positions then you may have to go elsewhere."