Opening clash against England a defining test for Ireland
Despite some injury woes, McNamara’s Six Nations winners remain in confident mood
Ireland U-20 players celebrate Cormac Foley’s try against England during the Six Nations victory in Cork. Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho
Ireland, the Under-20 Six Nations Grand Slam champions, travel to Argentina for the Junior Rugby World Championship without four of their starting team and staring into a pool that contains England, Australia and Italy. It’s a tough remit but the character demonstrated by the squad earlier in the season suggests they won’t be cowed by the challenge.
Captain and centre David Hawkshaw, outhalf Harry Byrne and flankers Scott Penny and Martin Moloney were key figures for some or all of the Six Nations triumph but along with Conor Phillips and Brian Deeny won’t travel to Argentina because of injury.
Ireland’s head coach Noel McNamara appreciates more than most that sport rarely offers the nap hand when it comes to having everyone hale and hearty. By the time that the 2018 Junior RWC had concluded in France, Ireland had lost 18 players to injury, some on club duty, others while representing their country.
The IRFU resolved to micro manage the match minutes for players this season but luck plays a substantial role. While results are important there is also a more holistic outlook. McNamara explained: “The reality is that part of this process is to identify players who can go on and contribute to provincial and international rugby.
“There are guys who will go through a full professional career and they might get just one opportunity to tour the Southern Hemisphere. What a great opportunity these guys will have to over the next few weeks. There will be great challenges, to travel and live in a different country for four weeks, experience a new culture and play against different teams.
“Many of them won’t have played against a Southern Hemisphere team before. This tournament brings a different dynamic as well. The Six Nations is like a middle distance race – this is like the 800 metres, a sprint but a tough sprint.
“One of the things we’ve really done throughout the course of this [preparation] is place a large focus on ourselves. The reality is we look at what we can control. We look at what we can influence and we try and leave the rest for someone else to worry about.”
In speaking to players and management there is a familiar mantra that winning the Six Nations has whetted the appetite for what lies ahead in Argentina. McNamara continued: “This is really exciting group to be part of; we felt that when we can back together.
“One of the things that kept coming back was the belief they had over the course of the last few months and the belief in the squad. That underpins any level of performance; it is really, really important. Equally it is important to move on from it. You take the belief, take the learnings, move on from it and look at the next challenge. The group have done that well.”
Ireland open the tournament against England just as they did in the Six Nations only swapping Musgrave Park for Santa Fe, a four-hour plane journey north of Buenos Aires; it is one of two venues for the tournament, the other Rosario.
The English squad contains nine of the squad that was narrowly beaten in last season’s JWC final by hosts France and includes full international Ted Hill and Harlequins outhalf Marcus Smith, two of several outstanding prospects.
The nature of the tournament, the three pool winners and the best second -placed side make the semi-finals, underlines the importance of a good start. Last year Ireland came within a whisker of beating the eventual champions France – no team pushed them closer throughout the tournament – but several injuries meant they ran out of steam.
Narrow defeats to South Africa and Georgia in their remaining pool games and another to Scotland in the first crossover match meant that a patched up team limped to a victory over Japan in the 11th/12th place playoff thereby ensuring their status in the tournament this year.
Australia won the Under-20 Oceania Champion ship for the first time, beating New Zealand 24-0 in the final and they have added former Wallabies backs’ coach Stephen Larkham to the backroom team. The squad contains Dundalk-born scrumhalf Michael McDonald, Sevens speedster Triston Reilly and nine returnees from last season’s tournament.
Ireland’s final pool opponents Italy, finished eighth at the JWC in 2017 and 2018, have a nice blend of youth and experience and their underage pathway is developing nicely under the keen eye of Stephen Aboud.
It wasn’t all bad news from an injury perspective for Ireland, centre Stewart Moore and Azur Allison, original squad members who missed the Six Nations through injury, travel to Argentina. Moore is likely to start at inside centre while Jake Flannery, so impressive at fullback, will reprise his club role with Shannon at outhalf.
Iwan Hughes may inherit the number 15 jersey while there will be two vacancies in the backrow in the absence of Moloney and Penny; Allison could start at eight with the outstanding Josh Hodnett moving to either of the flanker positions.
“Azur Allison and Stewart Moore are two guys originally named in the Six Nations squad,” McNamara explained.
“We hoped that, at some point, they would be able to get back to full fitness. Unfortunately, it didn’t pan out like that. They would have played Irish Schools, Irish Under-19s and be really strong performers for them.
“Declan Adamson has just had a really good year. I’m at pains to point out the importance of the AIL (All Ireland League) to the Under-20s. Declan has had a tremendous year with Clontarf where they went all the way to the final.
“Thomas Ahern is a physically impressive athlete. I went to watch the Under-19s play in France and was particularly impressed with him and his performances there. You don’t meet many 6ft8in guys, who are as athletic as he is. There is definitely a lot of upside to him.
“Equally, Charlie Ward is comfortable both sides of the scrum. He is a guy who has come through the Youths pathway. Another man from Tullow; just as one leaves us another arrives. Hopefully, Charlie can have a similar impact to the previous Tullow Tank.”
This young group showed tremendous resilience and character during the Six Nations to augment their rugby ability and given the injury issues those will be important assets in Argentina. For a second tournament in a row their prospects, results-wise will be defined by the opening game against England.