Saturday 29 October 2016

History-makers determined to finish the job and bring world title back to Ireland

Coach Carolan urges U-20s to treat final like any other game as second-row O'Connor bids to continue Tipperary's rich legacy

John Fallon

Published 25/06/2016 | 02:30

Shane Daly, second from left, of Ireland celebrates with his Ireland U-20 team-mates after scoring a late try against Argentina. Photo: Sportsfile
Shane Daly, second from left, of Ireland celebrates with his Ireland U-20 team-mates after scoring a late try against Argentina. Photo: Sportsfile

This Irish U-20 squad on the cusp of history comes from every corner of the land and beyond, but lock Sean O'Connor has never had to look far for inspiration from his Cashel base in south Co Tipperary.

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Or, to be more precise, from his Boherlahan/Dualla base outside Cashel, where he grew up with Irish legend Denis Leamy on his doorstep.

"He's from the same parish. You would meet him every Sunday at mass. He's a Dualla man, they have the sports centre in Dualla named after him. He is a big figure around Cashel," said O'Connor.

His career really took off in Rockwell College, where Leamy was his coach, and three years on the senior team ended in glory in his final season when a team that also featured Bill Johnston won the Munster Senior Cup with victory over Ardscoil Ris.

And while Tommy O'Donnell and Donnacha Ryan are also keeping the Tipperary flag flying with Munster and Ireland, O'Connor has plenty of advice available to him closer to home as Leinster forwards coach John Fogarty and his recently retired brother Denis, are first cousins.

O'Connor's emergence into a key figure in this Irish side for their maiden World Rugby U-20 Championship final, is just an example of the weaving and inter-twinning between past and present as coach Nigel Carolan assembles a side destined for glory in the future but with a link to the past.

There are, after all, the sons of three former Irish internationals - Michael Kiernan, Rob Saunders and Terry Kennedy - in a squad that has had to deal with a lot of injuries throughout the year.

"I was on the bench, didn't get on, when we played England in Newcastle," added O'Connor. "There are a lot of different faces on both teams, but it should be a good one. We just can't wait for it now."

The U-20 championship has gone largely unnoticed over the past few weeks in Manchester but a full house of around 11,000 is expected at the AJ Bell Stadium when England will be bidding for their third title in seven final appearances.

But coach Carolan has urged his men to play the game and not the occasion. They are on a roll since they defeated England in the Six Nations and have now won seven in a row.

Monday's 37-7 win over Argentina, having won all three pool games for the first time in the nine-year history of the competition, has left them just 80 minutes from glory.

"Preparation has been really good. Lads have recovered well. It has been pretty low key. Our focus in our preparation is more about it being another game rather than try to prepare for the occasion," said Carolan.

"It's very much about doing our homework, looking what worked well for us in the Argentina game and the little areas we can improve on. And then just little holes that we might be able to pick in the English defence. The lads are in good spirits."

But Carolan admits that it is a big occasion for these young players in their careers and while he doesn't want them to get caught up in the occasion, he has been urging his charges to enjoy every minute of it.

"It's a milestone for all of us and for Irish rugby, to be in a world final. They are very tight, they work hard for us, they get on very well and hopefully that team spirit and character can see them through."

And having lost a man to injury in each of the three pool wins over Wales (26-25), New Zealand (33-24) and Georgia (35-7), he can name an unchanged side for the final.

England, who also had an indifferent Six Nations, have also been in top form in this competition and also won all three pool matches against Italy (48-10), Scotland (44-0) and Australia (17-13), before ousting South Africa 39-17 in the semi-finals on Monday night.

England skipper Harry Mallinder, who has made the breakthrough into the Northampton Saints side coached by his father Jim, said they had moved on from the Six Nations.

"We are not worrying too much about that Six Nations campaign. There are a few new boys coming into the group and we have started again," he said.

Indeed, England show eight changes from the side which went down 26-20 at Kingston Park in the Six Nations, having led 20-6 early in the second half. But the Irish side has also changed a lot - there are six changes to the starting 15 this evening from that game.

"We were behind a lot in that game against England and it was that high-risk, high-intensity rugby that enabled us to claw back that deficit.

"Now we have won seven from seven playing that way. That's hopefully the way we are going to start the game, a high intensity game, shut England down and just impose ourselves on them. And hopefully that will be enough to get us across the line.

"It's a great place to be in and just trying to prepare for another game rather than trying to prepare for a world stage."

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