Gallagher sets sights on historic U-20s scalp
If Connacht is the rugby story of the year then what’s happening in Sligo is it in microcosm. It hit home to Irish U-20 lock Cillian Gallagher during one of the Six Nations games when he looked round and saw fellow Sligo men Stephen Kerins at scrum-half and Conan O’Donnell propping.
Injury has ruled O’Donnell, who has featured for Pat Lam’s side, out of this World Rugby U-20 Championship but Kerins and Gallagher will be in action when they bid for an historic win over champions New Zealand.
“It was crazy during the Six Nations thinking we had 20 per cent of the starting team coming from Sligo at the same age-group. If you told someone that five years ago they would have said you were crazy,” said Gallagher, who is only 18 and underage again for this tournament in Georgia next year.
“The clubs and schools systems have gone great lengths with guys like Ross Mannion, Mikey O’Hehir and John Davey. They have done massive work, they got people out playing and interested. You have had all of the resources there.
“Even in my last year in school in Summerhill, every night of the week I could train with somebody, be it a senior team or an U-18 team, I always had someone to train with. I had people in the gym to tell me what to do. We always had those resources.”
And in a season when Connacht won their first trophy in their 131-year history, Gallagher (right) and his colleagues get the chance to be the first Irish men’s side to defeat New Zealand in any grade.
“It came up just after the Wales game that no Ireland team has ever beaten New Zealand at any level, not just senior. To have that opportunity to be the first team ever is absolutely huge.
“That’s in our minds, in the back of our minds but it’s definitely there.
“We are going to see our opportunities on the field and we are going to take them hopefully and if we get the result we get the result,” added Gallagher, a former underage basketball international who is now in the Connacht academy headed up by Irish U-20 coach Nigel Carolan.
It’s been a brilliant year to be in the Connacht academy and the way Lam has called up players and given them a taste of the action is a huge incentive for guys like Gallagher who are on the pathway.
“Definitely, people like Sean O’Brien who was training with us in the academy last summer, he was training with me every day. He played an Eagles game or two with me at the start of the season and you could tell he was way above that.
“He stepped up and you can see the season that he has had now. As an academy player in Connacht you are definitely not too far away and Pat has said that to all of us. If you are good enough you are old enough and that’s the way he sees it.
“You have to have your head on every day you are in the academy. If injuries come, and Connacht had a big injury section this year, so if the call comes we all have to be ready and ready to take that step up.
“I know I have 20s again next year so I have that. But definitely if the call comes up for Pro12 I will be well and truly ready.”
There is only one change to the side which defeated Wales. Tighthead prop Conor Kenny has returned home with a shoulder injury picked up early in that game, with Ben Betts, having replaced him on Tuesday evening, in from the start this time.
Trinity’s James Bollard has been called up to the replacements, with Adam Coyle of Naas having been added to the squad in midweek following Kenny’s injury.
This will be the sixth meeting between Ireland and New Zealand in this competition, and the fourth year in a row that they have met, with the Baby Blacks winning all up to now.
New Zealand, who captured the title in Italy last year for the fifth time, opened the defence of their crown with a nine-try 55-0 win over newcomers Georgia on Tuesday evening.
Coach Carolan said the players know they have the chance to make history. “For the players it’s the one that they are going to be looking to play. We are going to hopefully take the confidence from the Wales game into this one.”
IRELAND – J Stockdale; M Byrne, S Daly, C O’Brien, H Keenan; B Johnston, S Kerins; A Porter, A McBurney, B Betts; C Gallagher, J Ryan (capt); G Jones, D Aspil, M Deegan. Reps: V O’Brien, J Bollard, V Abdaladze, S O’Connor, K Brown, N Saunders, J McPhillips, J O’Brien.
U-20 Ireland v New Zealand, Live, TG4/Sky Sports, 1.30