Sunday 21 April 2019

Five Ireland players to watch following stunning U-20s Grand Slam success

Craig Casey, Josh Wycherley and Scott Penney
Craig Casey, Josh Wycherley and Scott Penney
Scott Penny. Photo: Sportsfile
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

The Ireland U-20s' rip-roaring Grand Slam journey finished as it had started with a late try securing a crucial victory.

In hindsight, perhaps the writing was on the wall as soon as Noel McNamara's young side toppled an England team that many feared.

But this is a story about a hugely talented group of players who never knew when they were beaten and thrived on upsetting the odds.

Eleven players started all five games, including the pack, who typified the steely determination by taking the game to bigger opposition.

Ireland didn't lose any of their scrums throughout the tournament, which is a testament to the pack as well as the work of scrum coach Ambrose Conboy.

The Irish system is in rude health and after a disappointing finish to Joe Schmidt's side's Six Nations, the stars of the future ensured that last weekend was not all doom and gloom.

With Stuart Lancaster lending a hand on the video analysis side of things and McNamara benefiting hugely from his stint coaching in New Zealand last year (which was organised by the IRFU), the joined-up thinking is clear to see.

The biggest thing McNamara learned from his time with North Harbour, who play in the Mitre 10 Cup, a level just below Super Rugby, was the importance of player ownership and that tweak paid dividends.

What was hugely pleasing about this year's squad was the spread of talent from all four provinces.

Unsurprisingly, Leinster were the bulk suppliers, but Munster were strongly represented by the likes of Jonathan Wren and John Hodnett.

Connacht can take huge pride in Niall Murray's performances in the engine room, while Colm Reilly's try in Colwyn Bay was decisive. As for Ulster, Angus Kernohan, Callum Reid and David McCann played their part.

The group will reconvene next month as preparations for the World Cup in Argentina ramp up.

The class of 2019 emulated 2007's Grand Slam success - a remarkable achievement that didn't go unnoticed by Schmidt. "We've trained with them and, gee, they haven't stepped back, it was very intense, we were really impressed," Schmidt enthused.

"You wouldn't say they are the visible stars that there have been in U-20s teams in recent years, but I think they're more of a star team."

Here are just five of those stars to watch out for in the coming years:

Scott Penny

The abrasive flanker didn't exactly fly under the radar coming into the Six Nations having already scored two tries in his first four games for Leinster. Penny lived up to his growing reputation as his all-action performances left little doubt that he is a future Ireland international lying in wait.

A menacing threat at the breakdown, Penny's ability to jackal earned some crucial turnovers and not least during the Grand Slam decider.

The latest prospect to come off the conveyor belt from St Michael's, Penny's decision-making under pressure really stands out as was typified by the manner in which he created Wren's try in the win over Wales.

Ryan Baird

Injury disrupted Baird's campaign as he missed the first three games and by the time he returned, his path into the starting XV was blocked by outstanding performances from Charlie Ryan and Murray.

Baird, however, made a massive impact in both of his appearances off the bench, particularly against France when he used all 6ft 6in of his frame.

The lock still has some filling out to do, but he looks to be built for the demands of professional rugby.

Very much in the James Ryan mould, the 19-year-old will be hoping for a strong, injury-free finish to the season by which point he can peak for the World Cup in June.

Josh Wycherley

In truth, you could have chosen any one of the three front-rows, as tighthead Thomas Clarkson and hooker Dylan Tierney-Martin were a major part of a dominant pack.

Wycherley gets the nod for his scrummaging power and technique from loosehead as he caused all sorts of problems for opposition teams in the tournament.

The Bantry native scored two tries against France and was a willing ball-carrier throughout the campaign.

Wycherley's next aim is to follow in his older brother Fineen's footsteps into the Munster set-up after he also cut his teeth with the Ireland U-20s.

Craig Casey

If he was French, Casey would be your classic 'petit général' in the scrum-half role.

Having missed last year's tournament through injury, Casey bounced back well, although he did have to endure a couple of more setbacks.

That didn't take away from his performances, however, as he bossed those around him and ran the show with expert poise, while also notching two tries in the victory in Italy.

Casey, who hails from Limerick, has a very bright future ahead of him if he can stay fit.

A keen eye for a gap and an excellent kicking game, he has all the attributes to push on.

Harry Byrne

The confident young out-half benefited hugely from his experience of being last season's starting 10 as he proved that he has matured with regard to his game management.

Byrne is an assured goal-kicker and tasked with getting Ireland's electric back-line moving, he did so with aplomb.

Like his half-back partner Casey, Byrne had a frustrating time with injury as he missed the final two games, but he had already showcased his undoubted quality by then.

If he keeps improving at this rate, it won't be long before he is competing for his older brother Ross' spot at Leinster.

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