Thursday 27 July 2017

Free spirit of U-20s stark contrast with senior 'process'

Jordan Larmour has been hugely impressive throughout the Six Nations and along with Jack Kelly, has already trained with the senior squad when Schmidt called them into a session last in November, which tells you how highly the pair are thought of. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Jordan Larmour has been hugely impressive throughout the Six Nations and along with Jack Kelly, has already trained with the senior squad when Schmidt called them into a session last in November, which tells you how highly the pair are thought of. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

At a time when most top international coaches are obsessed with sticking to the rigidly set 'process', there is something refreshing about watching the U-20s Six Nations and later in the year, the Junior World Cup.

In Ireland, there is far less pressure put on the end result - it's more about the performance and how the young players take the responsibility upon themselves.

When Nigel Carolan took over as Ireland's U-20s head coach late in 2014, he sought to empower the youngsters and allow them to make key decisions for themselves.

Under Carolan's watch, the review sessions are driven by the players, as is the analysis done on the opposition: certain individuals are expected to present game-plans to the management, while the captain is voted for by his team-mates.

It is a far cry from what happens when they reach the senior set-up, which begs the question: is there a gap between how the U-20s are being coached on and off the field, and what happens in reality in Carton House?

Joe Schmidt is a notoriously tough task-master and has often mentioned how his teams are performance-based and driven by the process.

Admittedly, the U-20s is a world away from the stakes at senior international level, but the current squad contains some outstanding talents who are thriving in the freedom that is being afforded to them.

Earlier this week, Carolan claimed that this team had some of the best individuals this country has produced at age-grade level, and it is difficult to disagree with that assessment.

Jordan Larmour has been hugely impressive throughout the Six Nations and along with Jack Kelly, has already trained with the senior squad when Schmidt called them into a session last in November, which tells you how highly the pair are thought of.

The expansive brand of rugby that the U-20s are playing is far from what we have seen from Schmidt's side in recent weeks and while again it must be put into context, there is a fear in certain quarters that when these young players make the step up, the relentless need to stick to the process may in some cases stunt their potential.

"We're doing things both on and off the field where the players have to be the decision makers," Carolan said back in January 2015.

"The intention is that the coaches will facilitate a lot of the work earlier in the week, but we hope that later in the week, we'll step back and let the players take over.

"The primary focus there is that in the game, they actually don't have to look up to the stand and say 'What do you want us to do next?' They have a menu of options and they've got to decide among themselves. For us, it's a huge trust element."

Carolan has stayed true to his word and his players have benefited hugely. If one incident best sums up his mantra, it is Calvin Nash's try against Wales last weekend.

The ball was kicked to the back field where Larmour calmly collected it before assessing his options.

With seemingly nothing on, Larmour turned on the after-burners, which are devastating, before linking up with Nash, another exciting prospect on the left wing, who ran clear in the corner.

Ireland's counter-attack has been nowhere near the standards that Schmidt demands, and one wonders how much of that is down to a fear taking hold of the players and stifling their natural instinct.

Simon Zebo largely looks a different player when playing in Munster red, while Robbie Henshaw, who Brian O'Driscoll anointed as the next outside-centre in 2014, has been turned into a battering ram.

Henshaw only featured once for the Ireland U-20s, mainly due to his fast-tracking to the senior set-up, but there was a lot more to his game then than what we are seeing now.

The English system by contrast is thriving - they have won the Six Nations in two of the last three years at both U-20s and senior level.

Carolan expects several of his protégés to soon make the step up and when they do, they must be allowed express themselves.

Ireland have a lot of genuine talents on their hands, how they are managed in the coming years will determine how much of a force they will become on the world stage.

Conway continues to lead from front

Ireland U-20s loosehead prop Joey Conway will continue his record of starting every Six Nations game this season when his side host champions England tomorrow in Donnybrook.

Conway has been a major part of a pack that has steadily improved with each game and he admitted that something clicked after they struggled against Scotland in the opening game.

"I think people underestimated our scrum," the Limerick man said. "First day we weren't great against Scotland but after that we got back into camp and put that as our main focus point. Our scrum has been excellent, we've had 100pc on our own ball, we've seen the progress we're making.

"We just focused more on what we need to do and stick as a unit instead of going off the script. You can see now it's more of a weapon than what it was."

Nigel Carolan has largely kept faith with the side that lost in Wales last weekend as Gavin Mullin returns from injury while John Foley makes his debut in the back-row.

Ireland U-20s (to play Wales tomorrow) - J Larmour; T O'Brien, G Mullin, C Frawley, C Nash (capt); B Johnston, J Stewart; J Conway, T McElroy, C Connolly; F Wycherley, O Dowling; J Foley, P Boyle, C Doris. Reps: R Kelleher, G McGrath, M Burke, J Regan, G Coombes, J Stafford, C Fitzgerald, C Hogan.

Irish Independent

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