Tony Ward: Pain of defeat softened by exceptional potential of this Irish side
Published 27/06/2016 | 02:30
In the end it proved a hurdle much too high as England comfortably lifted their third World Rugby U-20 title. We were gutsy to a fault, but that summing up has echoes of the days when Irish rugby teams gave their all only to come up short and be described in the aftermath as 'plucky'.
On Saturday in Salford we were all of that and more. Apart from giving another outstanding 80 minutes of leadership on the field, James Ryan grew even more in my estimation during the post-match interview.
These interviews are difficult at the best of times, but when put to him that had Ireland been told before the tournament that they would beat the Grand Slam-winning Welsh and five-time champions New Zealand, they would surely have been satisfied, Ryan's facial expression and reply said it all.
"Look, we came here to win the thing," was the substance of his response.
In that moment I believe he became a banker for rugby greatness down the line providing he can avoid injury. The same applies to several of his team-mates.
But first let us give credit where credit is due to an English squad that has improved out of all proportion to that which misfired badly in the Six Nations.
What they did to South Africa in the semi-final, they repeated again in the opening half against us and the game was effectively over as a contest by half-time. Apart from the lineouts, they dominated every other facet of play.
They attacked us in the scrum and it paid although, as with Ryan, I would regard loosehead prop Andrew Porter as a guaranteed future international at the highest level.
If he can develop his mobility around the field, specifically at the fringe of ruck and maul, and not become too muscle-bound, we could be looking at another Cian Healy/Jack McGrath in the making.
His dad Ernie was a burly and robust centre and, like father like son, Andrew has it within him to develop his mobile game even further still.
In the end 'only' 24 points separated the sides on Saturday evening, but in all honesty any time the heat came on the English just moved it up a gear with man of the match Harry Mallinder pulling all the strings.
The son of a top-class coach, he is in the George Ford/Owen Farrell mould.
Overall, between the Harlequins and Saracens apprentices, the English squad is top heavy with emerging talent .
And therein lies the bottom line for this excellent annual tournament. Yes, of course it's about winning as alluded to by Ryan.
But even more than that, it is about providing the platform to bridge the gap between under-age and full-on professionalism.
It is a pressure-filled environment, but pressure at the appropriate age.
For many of the Irish players this will represent the high point of their careers and making it to a World Cup final, beating New Zealand along the way, ain't a half bad departure point from the international game.
But the U-20 age grade has served us well and this year's crop looks to have exceptional potential. Apart from Ryan (son of former Lansdowne and Leinster stalwart Mark) and Porter, Max Deegan is another with the undoubted talent to make the grade.
Like Ryan, Deegan came through the extraordinary rugby school that is St Michael's.
Deegan was a centre who looked very comfortable in midfield on the Michael's side that won the 2012 Junior Cup when they were captained by Ryan at No 8.
That experience behind the scrum stands to him now and provides further proof as to why young players should never be positionally pigeon-holed by size or body shape, particularly in their formative years.
Despite Mallinder's massive contribution throughout the tournament, Deegan was a most worthy recipient of the outstanding player award.
Beyond that, Jacob Stockdale, Shane Daly and, Conor O'Brien (watch out as well for his namesake Jimmy) looked the part, while hooker Adam McBurney and scrum-half Stephen Kerins - very much in the Peter Stringer mould - had their moments.
Despite the obvious disappointment of losing the final, second in the world at U-20 is a pretty good place to be for Irish rugby.
And as the curtain comes down on the season, here's one final thought for the IRFU over the summer - how about a return to Dubarry Park for U-20 internationals?
Donnybrook is devoid of atmosphere by comparison with the Athlone venue.