So who should we expect to graduate from the class of 2016?

John O’Sullivan looks back at the Irish Under-19 and Under-21 teams of 1998 and 2004

On Saturday at the AJ Bell stadium in Manchester, Ireland will contest a first ever Under-20 World Championship final when they take on tournament hosts, England.

It's been a remarkable run for Nigel Carolan's charges during which they have beaten the Six Nations and Grand Slam champions, Wales (26-25), the reigning world champions, New Zealand (33-24), Georgia (35-7) and on Monday evening Argentina, conquerors of France and South Africa, 37-7.

Indeed this Irish squad have won their last seven matches on the bounce. Since losing the opening two Under-20 Six Nations Championship to Wales and France, Ireland then won their remaining the fixtures in the tournament including a 26-20 victory over England at Kingston Park in Newcastle.

On Saturday Ireland will contest a third age-grade World Cup final. In 1998 a squad coached by Declan Kidney and captained by Shane Moore, won the Under-19 World Championship final when beating France 18-0 in Toulouse, while in 2004, coach, Mark McDermott's charges were beaten by New Zealand 47-19 in the Under-21 World Cup final in Glasgow.


The latter competition was a forerunner of the tournament final they’ll contest on Saturday in Manchester. The IRB as it was then - now World Rugby - decided to change the age bracket from Under-21 to Under-20 nine years ago.

Ireland's best performance heretofore was when they reached a semi-final under Mike Ruddock in 2014, eventually finishing fourth in what was called the IRB Junior World Championship.

The focal point for Ireland on Saturday is to win as a collective but invariably there will be a certain amount of conjecture as to how many players from this talented squad will go on and play senior international rugby.

An obvious reference point would be to examine the two Irish squads that reached the aforementioned World Cup finals. In 1998 Ireland beat the USA 47-13, drew with South Africa 17-17 before losing a penalty shoot-out only to be restored to the tournament when it was discovered that the Junior ‘Boks have used an ineligible player to take one of the kicks.

They beat Argentina 18-3 in the semi-finals before stunning tournament hosts, France18-0 in the final. That Irish squad contained future Ireland and Lions captain Brian O’Driscoll, who went to become his country’s record try scorer and most capped player.

Outhalf Paddy Wallace would play 30-tests for Ireland at senior level and was part of Ireland's 2009 Grand Slam winning squad, coincidentally under Kidney's coach baton. His halfback partner from the World Cup win, Kieran Campbell, won three Irish caps in 2005.

The 1998 Irish U-19 squad would produce not alone a fourth international but another Lions test player in Donncha O'Callaghan. The Cork Constitution, Munster and current Worcester Warriors secondrow won 94 caps for his country.

Moore played for an Ireland Development XV against Argentina in 2002 while hooker Adrian Flavin won caps for Ireland A; others would win provincial representation.

The class of 2004 under the captaincy of David Gannon managed to go one better in producing three players selected to tour with the Lions in Jamie Heaslip, Tommy Bowe and Tomas O'Leary. The latter was selected to tour with the 2009 Lions to South Africa but broke his ankle while playing for Munster and was ruled out prior to departure.

Heaslip, twice a Lions' tourist in 2009 and 2013 with five test match appearances, started at number eight in the 2004 final and was shortlisted for U-21 world player of the year (future All Black Jerome Kaino won). He has captained Leinster and Ireland and to date has won 87 caps at senior level.

Bowe didn’t play in the final having been injured earlier in the tournament but he was twice toured with the Lions in 2009 and 2013, playing five tests and is on 67 caps for Ireland and counting. O’Leary, who was a member of Ireland’s Grand Slam winning team in 2009, made 24 appearances for Ireland between 2007 and 2012.

The team also contained recently retired tighthead prop Declan Fitzpatrick who would go on to win seven Irish caps from 2012-2013, thereby providing a certain symmetry as the Under-19 World Cup winning squad and the Under-21 beaten finalists, both offered four future senior internationals respectively.

The 2004 squad though also produced Gareth Steenson (Exeter Chiefs) and hooker Denis Fogarty (seven Ireland A caps) and contributed more players than the 19s who went on to play senior rugby at representative level, both provincially and abroad, in England, France and New Zealand.

So who will graduate from the class of 2016?

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan is an Irish Times sports writer