Gus McCarthy and champions Ireland looking for a positive start to new campaign

New-look Wales expected to offer a far more robust challenge than in last year’s one-sided encounter

Gus McCarthy captained Blackrock to a Leinster Schools Senior Cup win last March and the hooker will be hoping he enjoys further success in leading Irish rugby’s premier age-grade side in the Under-20 Six Nations Championship.

He is one of three Blackrock players from that winning team, the highly regarded and talented centre Hugh Cooney, and a player to whom he is very close, literally and figuratively, in tighthead prop Paddy McCarthy, another with a fine reputation and the younger brother of Ireland senior international, Joe.

Gus McCarthy said: “Paddy is a great player. I’m very good friends [with him] and have been in school with him since fourth class. He’s always been a very, very competitive guy.”

The Ireland captain grew up on Rugby Road in Ranelagh before moving to Blackrock where his love of sport took root.


He played Gaelic football for Kilmacud Crokes, mini rugby in Old Belvedere, tennis in Blackrock Bowling & Tennis club and “a bit of golf” but it was at rugby that he excelled, and his leadership qualities were recognised in captaining at JCT and SCT level.

He spoke to last year’s Grand Slam-winning captain Reuben Crothers and to his team-mates that were part of that triumph, Conor O’Tighearnaigh, Diarmuid Mangan and Joe McNabney, to get their thoughts on what lies ahead.

“There are a few lads that have a lot of experience, in both the Six Nations and the Summer Series [in Italy, Sam Prendergast, George Hadden and Harry West].

“That sort of experience will be invaluable in helping us towards the Six Nations. Those home games against France and England are going to be sold out in Musgrave Park. It will be a great atmosphere and that will be something to get used to. Most lads, including myself, haven’t played with crowds like that. Having those lads with that experience will just be great.”

Wales have seven new caps in the pack with only captain and Dragons’ flanker Ryan Woodman returning from last year but they do have three backs, fullback Cameron Winnett, wing Harri Houston and outhalf Dan Edwards, returning from the U-20 Summer Series in which they reached the final.

The Welsh warmed up for the match by putting over 70-points on the Poland senior team and prior to that had a run-out against their Scottish counterparts. They should offer Ireland a much more robust challenge than Richie Murphy’s side faced last year when winning 53-5.

Head coach Byron Hayward said: “They [Ireland] will be a massive challenge as they are Grand Slam champions. Irish rugby is flourishing at the moment and has been for a number of years. But it is a challenge we are looking forward too. The reason you are in sport is because you want to play against the best and we face the best team first up.

“The boys did play some exceptional rugby against Poland. I have no doubt the boys will be competitive this year and we are in a far better place than we were 12 months ago.”

The evolution in the Irish performances in the warm-up games from a defeat to Italy to their most recent outing in beating a Leinster Development XV augurs well. Unusually they are a physically big team but also have some exceptionally talented young players and given reasonable possession should be able to reinforce that suggestion.

If the pack do provide a platform, then Sam Prendergast, Cooney, James Nicholson and Hugh Gavin, who impressed the last day – he swaps centre for wing – are accomplished footballers.

McCarthy said: “As it’s the first game, we don’t know a huge amount about Wales, so we’re just focusing on ourselves, making sure we have everything to the best standard we can. We’ll try and put our best foot forward, just worry about ourselves, not worry too much about Wales.”

WALES: C Winnett (Cardiff); L Morgan (Ospreys), L Hennessey, H Ackerman (Dragons), H Houston (Ospreys), D Edwards (Ospreys), A Hughes (Scarlets); D Kelleher-Griffiths (Dragons), S Scarfe (Dragons), T Pritchard (Scarlets); L Edwards (Ospreys), J Green (Harlequins); R Woodman (Dragons, capt), L Giannini (Scarlets), H Davies (Sale). Replacements: I Young (Scarlets), F Chapman (Ospreys), E Fackrell (Ospreys), O Evans (RGC), M Martin (Cardiff), H Williams (Scarlets), H James (Cardiff), T Florence (Ospreys).

IRELAND: J Nicholson (UCD/Leinster); H Gavin (Galwegians/Connacht), H Cooney (Clontarf/Leinster), J Devine (Corinthians/Connacht), I Anagu (La Rochelle); S Prendergast (Lansdowne/Leinster), F Gunne (Terenure/Leinster); G Hadden (Clontarf/Leinster), G McCarthy (UCD/Leinster, capt), P McCarthy (DUFC/Leinster); C O’Tighearnaigh (UCD/Leinster), D Mangan (UCD/Leinster); J McNabney (Ballymena/Ulster), R Quinn (Old Crescent/Munster), B Gleeson (Garryowen/Munster). Replacements: D Sheahan (UCC/Munster), G Morris (Lansdowne/Leinster), F Barrett (Corinthians/Connacht), E O’Connell (UL Bohemians/Munster), J Sheahan (UCC/Munster), O Cawley (Naas/Leinster), H West (Buccaneers/Connacht), H McErlean (Terenure/Leinster).H McErlean (Terenure/Leinster); H Gavin (Galwegians/Connacht), H Cooney (Clontarf/Leinster), J Devine (Corinthians/Connacht), J Nicholson (UCD/Leinster); S Prendergast (Lansdowne/Leinster), F Gunne (Terenure/Leinster); G Hadden (Clontarf/Leinster), G McCarthy (UCD/Leinster, capt), P McCarthy (DUFC/Leinster); C O’Tighearnaigh (UCD/Leinster), D Mangan (UCD/Leinster); J McNabney (Ballymena/Ulster), R Quinn (Old Crescent/Munster), B Gleeson (Garryowen/Munster). Replacements: D Sheahan (UCC/Munster), G Morris (Lansdowne/Leinster), F Barrett (Corinthians/Connacht), E O’Connell (UL Bohemians/Munster), J Sheahan (UCC/Munster), O Cawley (Naas/Leinster), H West (Buccaneers/Connacht), R Telfer (QUB/Ulster).

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan is an Irish Times sports writer