Ireland’s sonic youth: The inside story of the U-20s Grand Slam

The Irish players sing the national anthem ahead of the fifth and final Six Nations match against Wales in Colwyn Bay. Photograph: Jan Kruger/Getty Images

Who knew that the game ‘Connect 4’ could assist a group of young players to socialise, that teenagers can go through dinner without reaching for a mobile phone or that Dublin Gaelic footballer Kevin McManamon would help to foster an emotional development with an Ireland rugby squad that was key to breaking down barriers.

These are just some of the stories behind the Ireland Under-20 team’s headline achievement in winning a Six Nations Grand Slam beating England, Scotland, Italy, France and Wales for only the second time in the Irish rugby history and emulating the achievement of the Eric Elwood coached 2007 squad.

Ireland head coach Noel McNamara, captain David Hawkshaw, scrumhalf Craig Casey, prop Josh Wycherley, hooker Dylan Tierney-Martin, secondrow Charlie Ryan, flanker Scott Penny, masseur Gareth Rossi and Michael Wren, father of wing, Jonathan, reveal background colour and insight into a notable triumph.

Prologue

An Ireland Under-18 team came from 17-points down at half-time to win two years ago. McNamara was the head coach and many of those who would become central characters in the Grand Slam success were part of that Irish team. In the huddle on the pitch that day, the coach told the playing group that he believed they were good enough to win an Under-20 Grand Slam. He reminded them of those words during the present campaign.

Noel McNamara: “Liam Turner was certainly nodding at me when I said it but quite a few of them were there. I really did feel it that day that there was something about the group. It’s not easy to come back against quality opposition and Wales were at home that day.

Rob Howley (Wales and Lions backs’ coach) was sitting in front of us that day and he turned to around at the end of the game and said, ‘you have some good boys there.’

Fota Island, Connect 4 and Dublin Footballer Kevin McManamon

An extended Ireland Under-20 squad spent four days at Fota Island in a pre-Six Nations training camp. It was a final get together ahead of the tournament having played two games against Leinster and Munster development teams in December.

McNamara: “The things we spoke about in the camp were ‘character, connection and confidence.’ I believe that sport doesn’t build character, it reveals it. I spoke to the boys about that.

“The connection is something that we would have pursued. (Dublin footballer) Kevin McManamon and Ronan Conway are two guys who operate in that kind of a world and they did a workshop with the boys for a few hours on day one.

Ireland coach Noel McNamara.
Ireland coach Noel McNamara.

“That probably started the conversation a little bit. It was about spending time together. Sometimes when you are in shorter camps you are chasing things. We trained once every day and maximised that time; the rest of the time was spent in our mini-groups.”

Craig Casey: “We did a session on the Monday night with Kevin McManamon. We pushed ourselves hard in training for the next three days and we knew that leaving Fota on the Thursday that if we had had to play England that Friday we would have been ready. We took a big step in Fota.

“We did a three hour bonding session but it wasn’t like that bonding everyone else does like canoeing or building things; it was us sitting down and chatting, getting to know each other a lot better.

“Once we achieved that, we were able and wanted to work hard for each other. It was about being honest and open, finding out stuff that we would not have known about each other before rocking up to Fota Island.”

McNamara: “One of the best investments we made this year was a giant ‘Connect 4’ game. That was in the middle of the team room and you would be amazed about how much time was spent around that. It was small things. They are a competitive group.

“There was a table tennis table down in Fota as well. There was no real magic bullet. There were things there for them and they made the most of it. That Connect 4 went everywhere with us.”

Josh Wycherley: “That camp down in Fota, we just came together and out on that pitch, it was like playing with your brothers to be honest.”

Scott Penny: “Who was the best at Connect 4? Cormac Foley. Table Tennis? I’d have to give it to Harry Byrne; we had a few close games.”

Establishing the Ground Rules

Players were encouraged to move outside their rugby circle, be it club or province and while there were no fines or bans per se, the players decided on a number of issues - one of which was that there would be no mobile phones at the dinner table.

David Hawkshaw: “It was a massive honour to captain these men. There are so many leaders in the squad, you never felt out of your depth, you never felt under pressure and everyone had each other’s back. We would meet as a leadership group and go through things as a team.

“Moving outside your immediate rugby circle is something we spoke about and encouraged to break down barriers and strengthen the bond within the group. Everyone had to buy into it. A good chunk of us had been together since Ireland Under-18s, been in camps. The bond grew organically. We enjoyed ourselves and wanted to play for each other. You make it a club environment but you don’t force it.

“We spoke about no mobile phones at the dinner table because it is very easy to do subconsciously without thinking. It was great; we discovered the art of conversation.”

Charlie Ryan and David Hawkshaw lead the celebrations in Colwyn Bay.
Charlie Ryan and David Hawkshaw lead the celebrations in Colwyn Bay.

Penny: “No phones at dinner. While no one said you couldn’t, it meant that everyone sat and talked to each other rather than being unsociable. At night time we would sit down in the team room and chat for hours. It wasn’t all Connect 4 and table tennis.

“Everyone understood the need to go outside your rugby circle, spending time with players from other provinces, getting to know them; that forged the bond. We spoke about it in camps, if you saw a group of mates sitting at a table, go and join others who you wouldn’t know as well.”

Pre-Tournament Goals

McNamara: “We spoke about a permanent base camp and starting every week at zero. I first heard (Munster coach) Johann van Graan saying that ‘every week starts at zero.’ The permanent base camp is something that every successful side will have where the highs aren’t too high and the lows aren’t too low. After every game there was an admission that our best was yet to come.

“Young players don’t know where their ceiling is; ultimately it is only when you impose ceilings on players that they become restricted by them. I think that is one of the refreshing things about working with young players and this group in particular. There was no real ceiling there. That was evident throughout the tournament.”

Gareth Rossi: “The important thing in a tournament like the Six Nations is that you have to ensure that players get sufficient rest. They were a great group of lads that got and mixed very well. They were very diligent in terms of doing the right things to recover. Time off feet is so important for guys who are carrying knocks, particularly with a seven day turnaround between some of the matches.”

Dylan Tierney-Martin: “When we started off, it was a case of every team has to look at themselves and wonder what’s a realistic goal. You can go out and hope to win a Grand Slam or win a tournament, but we knew that was a realistic goal for us.”

A Giant Stride Towards a Grand Slam

Ireland beat England 35-27 at Musgrave Park in the opening match of the tournament, coming back from 14-3 down after 22 minutes.

Casey: “We were 14-3 down standing behind the posts and I remember Josh Wycherley, saying, ‘two deep breaths and we go again.”

Tierney-Martin: “There was no panic. There are dips and peaks in games and that was their peak, we were going to get them when it was their dip.”

Casey: “The pivotal moment was when we were under the pump in the far left corner and there was scrum penalty after scrum penalty and we were a man down. We won a free kick and it was that moment we saw them break.”

Craig Casey and Harry Byrne after beating England.
Craig Casey and Harry Byrne after beating England.

Tierney-Martin: “The one defensive set that stands out to me the most was when they kicked to the corner and got a penalty off a maul; they scrummed and they scrummed. We got a yellow card, they scrummed again and we got the penalty to get out of there. From that moment, I think everyone put their chests out and looked at each other and said, ‘this is it.’”

Casey: “Our training sessions on a Monday and Tuesday are really, really tough; we have been to places then that we wouldn’t even go to in matches. We know that at the end of matches we will still be firing and the other team probably won’t.

“Those Monday and Tuesday sessions against what we call ‘the bibs’ - those lads pushing for jerseys - that’s when all the work is done so we can stick to the process on game day.

“In every moment that we were down, the decibel levels never dropped. The noise from the crowd drove us on and gave us belief. It was like an adrenaline shot.”

Penny: “England . . . that was the best game I ever played in my life. It was unbelievable.”

Charlie Ryan: “Winning set us up, and gave us some momentum for the rest of the tournament. That first performance was absolutely huge.”

Ireland Power Past Scotland and Italy

Ireland travelled to Netherdale and beat Scotland 24-5. The next assignment was it Rieti, Italy, a match Ireland won 34-14. Michael Wren, father of Jonathan, offers a parents perspective at that point on the campaign.

Wren: “The journey was fun. It was hectic at times in terms of the logistics but there was an unbelievable support network of parents. Mrs Hawkshaw set up a WhatsApp group and provided a support network in terms of tickets, travel, places to stay; any and all assistance that the group needed was offered.

“There was a capping ceremony after the England match and that was the ice breaker and would have got us all into contact. The one that took the most effort was Rieti, a bus, two hours north of Rome.

“In terms of travel romanticism it would have to be the Italian match, flying in and out of Rome with all those Ireland supporters in the airport going to the senior match wishing the 20s well. We had a bus organised to transport us up to Rieti and back to Rome, where we finished off the night in an Irish bar.”

Scott Penny celebrates after the game against Wales.
Scott Penny celebrates after the game against Wales.

The Team Loses a Captain

On the Monday before the French match David Hawkshaw collided with a teammate while chasing a kick in training, tearing the lateral collateral ligament and anterior cruciate ligament in his knee. He will require two surgeries, one of which he has had, and will miss the World Cup in Argentina. He refused to reveal the extent of the damage to his teammates that week in case it provided a distraction in the build-up to the French match. Charlie Ryan took over the captaincy.

Hawkshaw: “The last thing I wanted was to be making it about myself and dwelling on it. I just wanted them to focus on the matches. My injury and rehab was never going to be a factor or a distraction.”

Casey: “That Monday when Dave went down injured everyone was gutted for him. He is such a strong character that he didn’t really show it that day. A few of us were thinking, he could be back for the Welsh game. He kept it really quiet until a few of us were chatting to him on the Thursday and he said he was going in for surgery on the Friday.

“He wouldn’t go into detail on how big the surgery was which shows how strong he is as a person. To have him in the camp when he came over to Wales, to have him in the room was important; the little things he says are always right. We missed Dave dearly but Sean French stood up and had a huge game. It just shows the strength of the squad.”

’We Couldn’t Communicate, The Noise Was Deafening’

Ireland beat the world champions France 31-29 at Musgrave Park and because of results elsewhere the home side claimed the Six Nations title, succeeding the team they beat on the night.

Casey: “There were times when it was hard to communicate. The noise was so loud that at half-time we had to bring in hand gestures because it was impossible to get messages in otherwise.”

Penny: “The atmosphere for the French game was incredible. We tried to focus on ourselves as we did every week because if it isn’t broke, no need to change it.”

Wren: “The high point was the French match. I thought that Italy and Scotland could be sticky at home but if they could get through the French match then the Grand Slam was on. They were never afraid to play.”

Hawkshaw: “I was in for an operation during the France game so I only got the last few minutes of that one. I had to persuade the nurses to rush me back upstairs to get the last few minutes.”

Casey: “We didn’t find out we’d won the Six Nations until two minutes after the game, Wales were losing 27-13 to Scotland at the time. We were ecstatic but the goal was always to win the Grand Slam and the focus quickly changed onto that. We enjoyed a few moments on the pitch walking around but when we came into the huddle, we spoke about getting it right for Wales.

The players arrive ahead of the Wales match.
The players arrive ahead of the Wales match.

Great Sportsmanship

Under-20 World Player of the Year and French number eight Jordan Joseph noticed that Casey had hurt his knee and pulled the Irish scrumhalf out of a ruck and harm’s way.

Casey: “In fairness to him, I got my knee caught behind me trying to reach for the try line. I was obviously in a lot of pain and he saw that and fair play to him and pulled me out of there. I don’t speak French, so I couldn’t really communicate with him. I shook his hand and said thanks very much.

“The tackle on him earlier in the game? A lot of the credit has to go to Liam Turner really. I bounced off him (Joseph) at the start and Liam held him, stopped his momentum. I was short enough to get under his big frame and did what I had to do.”

Colwyn Bay and a Grand Slam

Penny: “No one was worried even though we were losing up to the 60th minute. We just agreed that we had been here before and that we would find a way.”

Wycherley: “It was just another day, just another day to show our ability. We knew we hadn’t produced our full 100 per cent performance to date, and even though that performance wasn’t 100 per cent either by any means, but it really showed our character and cohesion as a team.”

Ryan: “That wasn’t our finest performance but it was probably my favourite one. We just ground out the game when we really, really needed it. I just feel really lucky to have been part of this group, an absolute privilege.

“Having David (Hawkshaw) around camp was such a huge bonus; he’s just so well liked. It gave everyone more confidence. He spoke to us in the hotel; it was similar to what we would be saying out on the pitch. Just to stay calm and back ourselves.”

Hawkshaw: “It was a massive honour to be called onto the pitch and be able to lift the cup with Charlie (Ryan). You could see in the boys how special it was; I might not have understood straight away but it was a special journey. I thought (Charlie) was going to pull me up off the ground. I needed a box as I’m just a little smaller than his six foot eight inches.”

Tierney-Martin: “The biggest moment for me was walking over to see my mother and seeing the tears in her eyes. That was when I realised ‘Jeez, this is huge, this is absolutely massive.’ And my dad, it meant everything to him. When it means that much to your parents, it has to mean that much to you.

“I would describe the squad as a brotherhood. To do something like that with lads who you are that close to makes it extra special. Even though it probably is once in a life-time opportunity, it’s even better when you are that close.”

Rossi: “That last 10 minutes against Wales and gritting out that victory was a high point for me. The way in which they finished so strongly, kept pushing, kept playing.”

Jonathan Wren celebrates with his family in Colwyn Bay.
Jonathan Wren celebrates with his family in Colwyn Bay.

Wren: “Despite being young men the group were very family orientated and it was great the smiles and the pride as they came over to the sideline after matches to allow us share in their moments.”

McNamara: “The parents, family and friends came back to the team hotel, which was quite far out in North Wales. We had an early flight back to Manchester the following morning so it was pretty tame as well. We had some of the injured guys there, David Hawkshaw, Craig Casey, Harry Byrne who couldn’t play on the day but it was nice for them to be there.

“There were guys who were involved in the campaign who unfortunately weren’t there; guys like Conor Phillips who played in the first two games. There were others in the extended squad who didn’t get to play and it is important that they get recognised for the value of what they contributed.

“I said to the group in the second or third week that the value of a team is when you continue to contribute when your own selfish needs are not longer being met. There are a lot of selfless people within that group, guys who didn’t get picked, didn’t get capped continued to contribute right up to the end and that is testament to them as people and the group as a whole.”

A 28-man Ireland Under-20 squad will travel to Argentina in June to take part in the World Junior Championship.