Noel McNamara ready to prepare the next generation of Irish rugby

Ireland under-20 coach will have Paul O’Connell by his side for the Six Nations

Ireland under-20 players Jonny Stewart, Diarmuid Barron, head coach Noel McNamara, Sean Masterson and Tommy O’Brien. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Ireland under-20 players Jonny Stewart, Diarmuid Barron, head coach Noel McNamara, Sean Masterson and Tommy O’Brien. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

 

His first love was soccer. But the shape of the ball has done little to stop the surge of Noel McNamara. The almost compulsory career graph from star of the playing field to backroom brains trust has been expertly side-stepped by the Ireland under-20 coach before the beginning of next week’s Six Nations championship and a Junior World Cup adventure in France over the summer.

At 36-years-old he is younger than Leinster head coach Leo Cullen. But McNamara has paid his dues despite his love affair flickering to life only after going to the University of Limerick and rubbing shoulders with the late PJ Smith, a thinker and a man before his time.

In the 1990s Smith was outlandishly sermonising about props needing to be able to pass like scrumhalves and something called a 15-man game.

McNamara also encouraged Paul O’Connell to become involved with the under-20s. The former Ireland captain responded positively to that invitation and while his real coaching experience is limited, integrity, focus and commitment have made the man, not just the player.

Huge standing

“Paul has been a huge addition to the coaching group. Obviously he is someone who has a huge standing, not only in Irish rugby but in world rugby. He’s added a lot of value,” says McNamara at a PWC event in Dublin.

 “I have been trying to get him on board with the under-18s for a couple of seasons. Listen, it’s something that has been there in the background.

“He has a very busy schedule and he has a lot of other commitments so unfortunately, at the start of the season, it wasn’t possible. It was something that he was keen to be involved in and the opportunity arose and it was something we were obviously keen to grab with both hands.”

“Paul is a really good person,” adds the coach. “He’s extremely humble. He’s come in and very openly said that there are things that he needs to learn as well. I think you have to recognise that the most important value that Paul brings is that personal element.”

Noel McNamara also encouraged Paul O’Connell to become involved with the under-20s. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Noel McNamara encouraged Paul O’Connell to become involved with the under-20s. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

As shown every year, the schools and underage representative system produce almost fully formed players. Jordan Larmour and James Ryan are the latest, before them Garry Ringrose. O’Connell’s presence is more of a mentor or super consultant than boots on the training paddock in driving rain.

But even at this stage the teenage players have had a heap of interaction with the officer class. Jonny Stewart has played for the Ulster senior side. He has been working with Les Kiss and Jonno Gibbes. Captain Tommy O’Brien of Blackrock College, breaking a long run of under-20 St Michael’s captains, and Ronan Kelleher have been involved with the Leinster senior side, Stuart Lancaster, Cullen and Girvan Dempsey.

They are long past the phase of rabbits caught in headlights.

Nuanced position

McNamara is a coach, a teacher and a small farmer. His job with the under-20s encapsulates aspects of all three professions: instruction, direction and nurture. It is a nuanced position he holds and while the team will go out and try to win the championship and the World Cup, there are more things at work.

He understands that if Ireland were to win five championships in a row and provide no players to the senior squad it would constitute failure. The team is nothing unless a critical mass filters through and up. There are 11 players returning from last year and other such as promising backrow, Caelan Doris, who is likely to miss the entire tournament.

“I don’t think it is up to me to define what success is going to look like. The players will have identified their goals,” says McNamara.

“You look at previous years. What is the definition of success? It is very difficult to quantify it.

“I certainly think, when you see someone like Jordan Larmour, and how well the under-20s prepared him for senior rugby. He’s gone from the under-20s six months ago to now being first choice starter for Leinster in the Champions Cup.

“You look at how Andrew Porter, James Ryan, Jacob Stockdale have gone from the under-20s almost into the senior side. It is very difficult, right now, to quantify what that’s going to look like. It is the pathway, ultimately.”

It is far from O’Connell’s “put the fear of God into them”, a nakedly win driven and outcome orientated cry from the heart. But the Ireland senior team is ranked four in the world. Maybe the long ball is the one to play.

IRELAND UNDER 20S SIX NATIONS SQUAD

Forwards: Jack Aungier (St Mary’s /Leinster); Matthew Agnew (Ballymenia/Ulster); Diarmuid Barron (Garryowen /Munster); Joe Byrne (Dublin University /Leinster); Ronan Coffey (Shannon /Munster); Matthew Dalton (Malone /Ulster); Cormac Daly (Clontarf /Leinster); Jordan Duggan (Naas /Leinster); Jack Dunne (Dublin University /Leinster); Joe Dunleavy (Malone /Ulster); James French (UCC /Munster); Aaron Hall (Ballynahinch /Ulster); Max Kearney (Dublin University /Leinster); Ronan Kelleher (Lansdowne /Leinster); Sean Masterson (Corinthians /Connacht); Jack O’Sullivan (UCC /Munster); Tom O’Toole (Banbridge /Ulster); Charlie Ryan (UCD /Leinster); Backs: Harry Byrne (UCD /Leinster); Angus Curtis (Queen’s University /Ulster); Conor Dean (St. Mary’s /Leinster); Conor Hayes (Young Munster /Munster); Mark Keane (Queen’s University); Angus Kernohan (Ballymena /Ulster); David McCarthy (Garryowen /Munster); James McCarthy (UL Bohemian /Munster); Seán O’Brien (Clontarf /Leinster); Tommy O’Brien (UCD /Leinster) Captain; Hugh O’Sullivan (Clontarf /Leinster); Jonny Stewart (Queen’s University /Ulster); Michael Silvester (Dublin University /Leinster); Peter Sullivan (Lansdowne /Leinster)

IRELAND U20 SIX NATIONS FIXTURES 2018

Friday, February 2nd 2018 – France U20 v Ireland U20, 8pm (Irish time), Stade Amédée Domenech, Brive

Frida, February 9th 2018 – Ireland U20 v Italy U20, 7.15pm, Donnybrook Stadium, Dublin

Friday, February 23rd 2018 – Ireland U20 v Wales U20, 7.15pm, Donnybrook Stadium, Dublin

Saturday, March 9th 2018 – Ireland U20 v Scotland U20, 7.15pm, Donnybrook Stadium, Dublin

Friday, March 16th 2018 – England U20 v Ireland U20, 8pm, Ricoh Arena, Coventry

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