Juniors show abundance of ambition and talent
It's not often Ireland and New Zealand have anything in common but we saw some shared ground over the last week.
In the early hours of last Sunday morning in Houston, Les Kiss's Ireland side flirted with the appalling vista of losing for the first time to USA. They withstood the heat and humidity and raging fire of the home team to maintain an unbeaten record in this fixture. At least the conditions against Canada in Toronto this morning will have been more benign.
Then in France on Thursday, in the Junior World Championship, New Zealand under 20s were faced with ignominy as they battled to avoid becoming the first men in black to lose to an Ireland side. And they too came through in one piece.
While we have been well fed on helpings of heroism in defeat over the years there was cause for consolation from those events in north-west France. If you watched the game you will probably admit to having given up on the underdogs when they had a man binned and promptly conceded two tries against a phenomenally athletic Baby Blacks team, seeing the scoreline race out to 31-11.
So to be closing the game by pounding away at the New Zealand line, looking for a converted try to win, was a remarkable turnaround. To have beaten Australia and Fiji, and come so close to what would have been a stunning hat-trick against New Zealand, was a very good few days' work for Mike Ruddock's side. Now they face France on Tuesday in a play-off for fifth place, with another game to follow against either Argentina or Australia next Sunday.
"To be honest with you, we haven't given France a lot of thought yet, we've been tied up doing the review of the New Zealand match and debriefing the lads," Ruddock said last week.
"Obviously we want to win it and do something similar to last year and go on and win four out of five games. But if we don't it won't be through lack of trying with these boys. They've risen superbly to all the challenges in front of them and weren't a million miles away from taking a massive scalp the other day."
You could argue that they were undone to some degree by their own ambition. At one point in the first period, with the Kiwi scrum under acute pressure, Ireland were awarded a penalty advantage inside their opponents' half, but instead of opting for a scrum, or nudge to touch, they went wide and ended up back on their own line almost conceding a try. One more scrum penalty at that stage would have forced a yellow card, and the psychological damage it would have inflicted on the Blacks would have been interesting.
The quality of Ireland's setpiece over the pool stages, against bigger opponents in every game, has been first-class. And if you were looking for beneficiaries from this then Leinster will be happiest.
Between starters and the bench they have three excellent front-row operators in loosehead Peter Dooley (who won't be 19 until August) and the Byrne twins, Edward and Brian. Along with Ulster tighthead Chris Taylor, they have already made a mark in this competition.
The Amlin and Pro12 champions also have the top two tacklers from last Thursday on their books: back-rowers Dan Leavy and Josh van der Flier.
It will be interesting to see where Leavy is with Leinster when Joe Schmidt comes to picking his World Cup squad in 2015. He is a freakishly good player.
Behind the scrum, the outstanding players are captain and scrumhalf Luke McGrath, and Ulster wing Rory Scholes. Centre Tom Daly made a big impression also but it will be harder for him to race ahead in midfield. McGrath and Scholes should move up the ladder quicker, even if McGrath has three players ahead of him in Leinster.
One of them, John Cooney, a tidy operator himself, starts for Emerging Ireland this afternoon in their sign-off in the Tbilisi Cup, against Uruguay. Losing to the South Africa President's XV last week put a hole in their boat so the most Ireland can hope for is a positive finish.
Emerging Ireland (v Uruguay): D Kearney; N Morris, E Griffin, N Reid, T O'Halloran; I Keatley, J Cooney; J McGrath, R Herring, M Bent, Dave O'Callaghan, D Foley, R Ruddock (capt), E McKeon, J Murphy.
Replacements: N Annett, R Lutton, I Nagle, Dominic Ryan, M Heaney, B Macken, P Nelson.
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