Monday 11 December 2017

Brendan Fanning: Slow starters Ireland get up to speed for historic semi-final date

Ireland head coach Nigel Carolan:
Ireland head coach Nigel Carolan: "We'll have to fight fire with fire and not be conservative. Our fitness has been really good so we want to express ourselves and play with tempo." Photo: Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Imagine you were sitting in the coach's box in the Manchester City Academy stadium as the first quarter against Wales unfolded. When last Ireland had taken on this opposition - the opener of the Six Nations on a bitterly cold February night in Donnybrook - they had come a distant second.

And here you were, four months later at the under 20 World Cup, and Wales already had 17 points on the board. Ireland hadn't even got their second wind.

"Everything goes through your head at that point," admits coach Nigel Carolan. "But I suppose it's about trying to remain calm. Some of the problems we were having that day were down to simple things like a loose kick or a missed tackle, and suddenly you get punished.

"Once our lads got into the swing of things they were fine. We're dangerous when we get into a flow and just focus on the next job. I think Wales might have thought they'd have it easy after that start but when we cut out the mistakes and increased the intensity we were a different side. I think it's also about letting our lads figure it out a bit, and do the simple things well."

The upshot of doing just that has brought Ireland to tomorrow's semi-final against Argentina, at the same venue, a journey as dramatic as it's been short: three wins out of three - a unique return for an Ireland side in this competition - and in two of them, against Wales and New Zealand, the slow starters caught up on the final straight. It has been a recurring feature of their season. It's safe to say this has not been part of a cunning plan.

"No, in the Six Nations we started slowly as a team and against Wales made lots of mistakes - for which we were punished," Carolan says. "Then France brought it to a whole new level and we were beaten up basically. Against England, we were 17-3 down before we stopped conceding so many points. In the second half we increased the risk factor and things started to happen."

Ireland's history in the underage World Cup is not great. With Jamie Heaslip and Tomás O'Leary as the main men, they got, unexpectedly, to the final in Glasgow in 2004, when it was an under 21 gig. They were beaten by New Zealand. Since it moved to under 20 in 2008, the story hasn't changed much: typically only England challenge the power of New Zealand and South Africa, and the semi-final placing of Ireland two years ago was the best under the new age grade.

To get to the last four twice in three seasons might suggest a turnaround but the familiar obstacles remain: despite producing players in their late teens who are better conditioned than say 10 years ago, Ireland teams are still under the cosh against countries whose young men develop quicker physically - New Zealand, South Africa and Australia - and those with a massive pool to fish from - England and France.

This current Ireland side are hardly midgets - loosehead Andrew Porter is a dominant figure and has been the best in his position in this tournament - but they are relying more on technique and spirit than brute force. Captain James Ryan, who was rested for the win over Georgia last Wednesday, is the undisputed team leader, but hooker Adam McBurney, No 8 Max Deegan and fullback Jacob Stockdale have all stood up when it counted.

It has taken them past Grand Slam champions Wales and World Cup holders New Zealand, into a last four line-up where, uniquely, none of New Zealand, Australia and France feature. All of which confirms that this is not your average year in under 20 land. And to give tomorrow's tie with Argentina some added spice, we have the senior World Cup as a backdrop. It's hardly a coincidence that the Puma cubs do a passable impression of Daniel Hourcade's side.

"I've just spent the last few hours looking at them," Carolan says. "And they're not here by accident. Having turned over France and South Africa, they're clearly a very good side and, like their senior team, they have the physicality either to be direct or go out the back. They love to play with width.

"We'll have to bring the New Zealand game plan back out of the box, to have the green wall in defence and with good line speed. In that game it meant that a lot of the contact was on the opposition side of the gain line. We'll have to fight fire with fire and not be conservative. Our fitness has been really good so we want to express ourselves and play with tempo."

So far Ireland have lost three players from the tournament, starting with tighthead Conor Kenny, literally in the first play against Wales, and followed in sequence by Munster's Bill Johnston and then Cillian Gallagher in the win over Georgia. Given the physicality of this competition that stat could have been higher.

"Sometimes you wouldn't want to be a parent watching your son in this, when you see the size of these fellas," Carolan admitted.

"We have a few of our own though. You can see certain guys who will go on to the pro game from here but some of these lads have not even been exposed to the UBL (Ulster Bank League). There's lots of potential but for a lot of them they're only at 60/70 per cent of their physical development, so there's a lot to come."

Starting tomorrow, hopefully.

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