Ireland U-20s to keep it brilliantly simple in England showdown
Nigel Carolan says reaching World Championship final down to interaction of players
Nigel Carolan: “The synergy in the group feels like it’s a club team or a school team; they’re buddies, they work hard for each other.” Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
Inscribed on A4 sheets of paper in the team room is a rugby philosophy that goes to the heart of Ireland’s remarkable journey to the Under-20 World Championship final, where they will face hosts England at the home of the Sale Sharks, the AJ Bell Stadium in Manchester today.
It reads: “Simple things done brilliantly.”
It is not new. When Nigel Carolan took over as coach to the Ireland Under-20 squad at the start of last season, he invited the players to come up with a mission statement that defined the way they wanted to play. The current group appropriated the mantra from their predecessors.
In 2014 Mike Ruddock steered an Ireland U-20 team to the semi-finals of the World Championship but in a bid to align this age grade as a programme for development linked to the academies rather than simply a team they approached Carolan.
Working wonders with the Connacht Academy through a steady progression from 2004, he was an obvious choice, and as time has shown, a shrewd appointment. A former wing he straddled the amateur and professional rugby eras as a player with Connacht before retiring in 2000 because of a neck injury.
He has been employed by the IRFU since 2002 and this is his third stint with this age grade, having previously been a technical analyst in 2004-2005 – it was U-21 at the time – and for two seasons from 2009-2011 as backs’ coach alongside Allen Clarke.
When he took over, Carolan did not only speak about his philosophy but empowered the players to devise the game they wanted to play and encouraged them to have the conviction to carry it out without being overly concerned about the results.
There were some ups and downs last year, much like the start of the Six Nations campaign this season when Ireland lost to Wales and France.
Since then they have won seven matches on the bounce and stand on the cusp of World Cup success.
“This whole campaign has been about momentum. After the Six Nations our primary focus was on Wales in the first game of the [World] championship. We looked at the areas in which we were exploited [in losing at Donnybrook],” the Galway native says.
“Even though we didn’t start well in that [World Cup] game we showed the character to come back and the momentum has built since then. It was a springboard for belief. The boys worked very hard in the build-up to that game, individually and collectively. They saw a return on all the hard work they did and that gave them a belief that hard work can give a positive outcome.
“As a group themselves they interact very well. The synergy in the group feels like it’s a club team or a school team; they’re buddies, they work hard for each other, they enjoy each other’s company be it when they are training or not training. You can see that in the way they play, working hard for one another. They look after each other.”
The spirit in the group has been fostered by some headspace away from rugby in the form of quizzes, song contests and, before the semi-final win against Argentina, a trip to Alton Towers.
Carolan entrusted his charges with an important task from a rugby perspective, a measure of the faith that he and the rest of his coaching team that includes assistant coach Peter Malone have in the players.
“The players have taken care of the team review of the games. They work in their little mini-teams on the same themes in terms of what we want to review: attack, defence and setpiece,” Carolan says.
“They determine what are the key learnings from those areas and they feed that back to the coaches. Invariably they have been very good, very accurate with their analysis.
“That has meant that we as a coaching team have been able to focus on the next game. We focus on ‘less is more’. The philosophy with which we play and the principles we apply are the same from game to game; we just tweak them here and there in attack and in defence and present a slightly different shape depending on the opposition.
“Within our gameplan we have high-risk options and low-risk options. Any time we have gone behind, we have had to change how we play the game. When we have taken a higher risk, thankfully we have gotten a reward.”
The mental side of playing a World Cup final has also been addressed.
“Our focus has been very much on the game rather than the occasion. How we perform between the four white lines will hopefully be similar to what we accomplished in the previous matches,” Carolan says.
“We haven’t built up the consequences of being in a final. We want guys to just focus on the game, which will involve their role in the next play and how they can be effective in that moment. Guys are going to be highly charged, they are going to be nervous and it is just about managing those emotions, using it positively. Hopefully a lot of them will go on to bigger things in their careers.”
The sharp-eyed might recall how Ireland lined out right across the width of the pitch to face the Haka in the build-up to the New Zealand game, an orchestrated manoeuvre.
“We just wanted guys to own their space, cover the pitch. It looked like a green wall and that is what we wanted to convey to New Zealand: that Ireland were going to be in their faces for the whole game.
“They were going to have to find a way through us. Our captain [James Ryan] was out front, accepting the challenge of the Haka.”
The team and management understand the magnitude of the task they face against an England team that have been equally impressive in making the final and will play in front of home supporters. The game is virtually an 11,500 sell-out.
Carolan points out that while they are very flattered to receive the hundreds of texts and phone calls as well as the compliments that they have received from other Irish sporting heroes, they have also drawn from the exploits of other teams.
“Irish sport needs some really good stories and hopefully we will be able to give them another one on Saturday. We will try and take a leaf out of Connacht rugby, Galway football, the Irish soccer team and the Ireland rugby team in South Africa, where the integrity of performance and attitude brings with it the courage to succeed.”