Thursday 22 February 2018

Carolan urges Ireland U-20s to seize initiative

Conan O'Donnell (SPORTSFILE)
Conan O'Donnell (SPORTSFILE)
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

When Nigel Carolan took over as Ireland U-20s coach last year, his philosophy was one that handed the players the responsibility to play what they see in front of them.

With exciting backs like Garry Ringrose, Ross Byrne and Billy Dardis, it was easy to see why he would adopt such an approach and although this year's crop would, on paper at least, seem to be more forward-orientated, Carolan insists that his mantra will remain the same.

Opening their Six Nations campaign against Wales in their new permanent Donnybrook home tonight (7.35) will provide an extremely tough test for what is largely an inexperienced squad.

Just three players (the entire front-row) have played at this level before, while in comparison, Wales welcome back no fewer than 12 faces from last year.

As well as that, five of the starting Welsh XV, including Ospreys' hugely exciting pair Owen Watkin and Adam Beard, have played for their clubs either in Europe or the Pro12 this season.

Ireland, though, will take confidence from the fact that their pack is the biggest that they have had in quite some time, with captain James Ryan, Andrew Porter and Conan O'Donnell adding considerable bulk.

A fifth place finish in last year's Six Nations fell way below Carolan's expectations but he is keen to adopt a similar approach this time around.

"My philosophy is about trying to empower players and it is not that it is loose," Carolan explained.

"The way we train and how we play is what I would describe as organised, but because we are trying to play with tempo and high intensity, players have to organise themselves and read where the space is.

"We are not a patterned team. We don't have designated space to attack so it is up to the players to recognise that and try to exploit it. That's how we train.

"Sometimes it works and when it does it is good. When it doesn't it is maybe accuracy, skill under pressure in a melting pot. That's the environment they will experience coming through.

"I don't coach with a remote control. Of course it can be frustrating but very often it comes down to skill under pressure. Sometimes they can identify it but it's about exploiting it.

"You see some of our provincial sides at the moment who are struggling with the same thing. It's something that we've put a bit of focus on, particularly accuracy in the green zones.

"Maybe lower the risk and increase the intensity and just try and make sure that we capitalise on every opportunity because we only get seven or eight chances in a game to score, we have to make them all count.

"That's maybe the difference on the analysis from last year. It's looking at the small margins and certainly green zone efficiency is high up there."

Tighthead prop O'Donnell is one of the three players returning from last year and he has benefited from his experiences with Connacht under Pat Lam this season.

The Sligo native is one of three former Summerhill College students in this evening's squad who also work with Carolan in the Connacht Academy and he believes that the coach's methods will pay dividends this year.

"It's a lot more expansive," O'Donnell said of the game-plan.

"We play heads-up rugby and we just judge it on the day, whereas other teams are really dependent on their structures, which means it's hard for them to make breaks. They're too focused on what they're doing.

"I've been learning from (Nathan) Whitey, Rodney (Ah You), Locks (Ronan Loughney), Bucks (Denis Buckley) and even Finlay (Bealham) and JP (Cooney), all of them. They've taught me loads.


"Every day they'd come up to me and pick something out and be like 'do this or you're not doing that right'. I'm asking questions now. Little things every day are making a big difference. Scrummaging against them, you learn little tricks that they use.

"Last year was very up and down. Some days we delivered and others we didn't. Maybe some people were switched off, I don't know.

"It was disappointing but hopefully we can do better this year and win something."

Expectations have arguably been tempered since last season's shortcomings and with an extremely tough start tonight, the result could well set the tone for the rest of the tournament.

Verdict: Wales

Ireland U-20 - J Power; M Byrne, S Daly, J O'Brien, H Keenan; J McPhillips, J Poland; A Porter, A McBurney, C O'Donnell; P Claffey, J Ryan (capt); C Gallagher, W Connors, M Deegan. Reps: S Fenton, J Bollard, C Kenny, S O'Connor, K Brown, S Keirns, B Connon, C O'Brien.

Wales U-20 - R Williams; E-W Benham, H Millard, O Watkin, K Giles; D Jones, D Smith; C Domachowski, D Hughes, D Lewis; S Lewis-Hughes, A Beard; T Phillips (capt), S Evans, H Keddie. Reps: I Phillips, R Lewis, L Brown, B Morgan, M Sieniawski, R Morgan-Williams, J Evans, J Thomas.

Ireland U-20 v Wales U-20, Live, RTE, 7.35

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