Liam Turner has eyes on the big prize against Wales
The Ireland Under-20s are determined to finish the year with a Grand Slam
Liam Turner: “All the coaches are really helpful, so I have come on in leaps and bounds in terms of conditioning and rugby knowledge.” Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
Liam Turner rolls his eyes good naturedly and smiles; he knows the question is coming. After all, it’s hard to be inconspicuous having previously worn the number 13 jersey at Blackrock College, given some famous antecedents of recent vintage, especially as he was a stand-out player when captaining the school to a Leinster Schools Senior Cup title last season.
The 19-year-old grew up marvelling at the exploits of Brian O’Driscoll, with whom there are inevitable comparisons given his low centre of gravity, acceleration, strength in contact, and his intelligence in defence.
Turner is on nodding terms with Garry Ringrose, but is a contemporary of the Irish centre’s younger brother Jack, with whom he played at school. He is adamant that he doesn’t feel any additional pressure. “Obviously the school has produced a few well known 13s; I don’t really focus on that, just focus on myself. They were big role models for me coming through school.”
He has taken bits and pieces from watching them and worked on his own strengths; it’s a pretty impressive compendium of qualities. Currently in Leinster’s sub-academy while studying business, economics and social studies at Trinity, he has first-year exams at the end of next month. Yet his sole focus for one more weekend is to help the Ireland Under-20s win a Grand Slam against Wales in Colwyn Bay on Friday night.
He has enthusiastically embraced the workload. “I’m really enjoying it, putting in a lot of work. There is a good bit of sacrifice. We are in four mornings a week at 7am, but all the lads are great craic. All the coaches are really helpful, so I have come on in leaps and bounds in terms of conditioning and rugby knowledge.”
The Ireland 20s relaxed with pizzas in the team hotel in the wake of beating France 31-29 at Musgrave Park on Friday night, a fourth successive win, and watched the game again. There was an element of satisfaction, but with it a determination to ensure that they finish the tournament with a flourish. They are looking to emulate the Ireland 20s team of 2007 that included current senior internationals Cian Healy and Keith Earls.
There is no moratorium on mentioning the Grand Slam. “After the Italy game it became a real possibility and [Leinster senior coach] Stuart Lancaster came into us after that game and made the point that we shouldn’t hide away from it – after three good performances – and that we should make it a serious goal.
“From the way we played we could see that we could definitely do it, and it was just about having that confidence going into the last two matches [to] go and win. Stuart took a video session, reviewing the first two games. He looked at it from the perspective of an opposition coach, how he would attack and defend against us.
“It would be bitterly disappointing [not to win a Grand Slam] because we have such an opportunity to do something that not a lot of teams have done. That’s the mindset of this team; we’re not satisfied. We’re obviously in a good place, but we want to go on and win again this Friday.
“I actually only found out that we had won the Grand Slam in 2007 last week, to be perfectly honest. I didn’t think we had won one at 20s level. That probably shows that we are sticking to ourselves and what we are trying to do. It’s kind of hard to put into words. Only four [male] Irish teams have been able to do it in the past, so it would just be incredible.”
Friday night’s combatants met two years ago in Wales at Under-18 level. Ireland came from 17 points down to win 39-37. Afterwards Noel McNamara, who was their head coach then, as he is now, told the group they would win a Grand Slam at Under-20s. He laughed when he recalled that Turner was the only one that remembered the proclamation.
There is some news from an injury perspective. Captain David Hawkshaw, who suffered a serious knee injury in training and missed the French game, had surgery, and will also miss the Under-20 Rugby World Championship in Argentina in June.
Hugely influential scrumhalf Craig Casey, who limped off in Cork last Friday, underwent a scan yesterday. The prognosis is positive, and he will train this week.
Meanwhile, Harry Byrne (hip flexor), a late withdrawal from the French game, has a fighting chance of being available for Wales.