Wednesday 26 June 2019

Ireland go from hunter to hunted but can defy the odds

Ireland's Harry McNulty in action against England at the HSBC Paris Sevens. Ireland yesterday lost in the Challenge Trophy final 28-12 to Canada and finished 10th in the competition. Fiji took the title after beating New Zealand. Photo: Sandra Ruhaut/Icon Sport via Getty Images
Ireland's Harry McNulty in action against England at the HSBC Paris Sevens. Ireland yesterday lost in the Challenge Trophy final 28-12 to Canada and finished 10th in the competition. Fiji took the title after beating New Zealand. Photo: Sandra Ruhaut/Icon Sport via Getty Images
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

Just like Joe Schmidt's Ireland this year, the U-20s have gone from being the hunter to the hunted.

The task facing Noel McNamara's charges is to handle that pressure better than their senior counterparts did during the Six Nations.

With success comes increased pressure and given that Ireland will kick off their Junior World Cup campaign tomorrow as Grand Slam champions, there is a significant target on their backs.

The fact that they beat two of their three pool rivals, England and Italy, en route to winning only Ireland's second Grand Slam at this level, ensures there is plenty of familiarity, while Australia will be full of confidence having recently won the Oceania title.

There are many challenges facing Ireland over the coming weeks. They have lost key players such as Scott Penny, Harry Byrne, Martin Moloney and captain David Hawkshaw to injury, which means that there will be several changes within the starting XV.

Penny is a particularly big loss as the outstanding flanker has already proven himself with Leinster in the PRO14 last season.

Togetherness

That said, one of the most impressive aspects of this team's success has been the squad's togetherness and while they might not be as strong without some of those first-choice players, they will back themselves to prove people wrong.

Playing in Argentina is also a very new experience for Ireland. Quickly adjusting to the time difference and weather will be crucial, while so too will be the fact that the majority of their games kick off early in the morning.

In preparation for that, Ireland played two warm-up games against Leinster and Munster - both of which began at 10.30am.

"You try and get as many small wins as you can, in terms of that preparation and how we manage that part of it," McNamara explained.

"We're preparing them to go forward into the professional game and whatever challenges you throw at them, they've got to be adaptable.

"If you play in France, you kick off sometimes at 9.30 at night.

"It presents a slightly different challenge.

"I've no doubt that individually they will find what works best for them."

England are first up tomorrow before Ireland face Australia on Saturday and then Italy on Wednesday week.

Ireland have never won the Junior World Cup but they can take inspiration from the class of 2016, which included the likes of James Ryan and Jacob Stockdale, as they marched all the way to the final.

McNamara can call upon his first-choice front-row who performed so well throughout the Six Nations. Josh Wycherley, Dylan Tierney-Martin and Thomas Clarkson were central figures in Ireland having a 100pc record off their own scrums.

In the engine room, Charlie Ryan takes over the captaincy from the injured Hawkshaw. Ryan formed a good partnership with Niall Murray, but Ryan Baird is fully fit-again and is one to watch.

The back-row is considerably weakened by the loss of Penny and Moloney, but John Hodnett, who was immense from No 8, is available.

So too is Ulster's Azur Allison. The versatile back-rower missed the Six Nations due to injury and his return is a considerable boost.

The impressive Craig Casey will start at scrum-half and it will be interesting to see who plays outside of him at 10.

The obvious choice is Ben Healy who deputised for Byrne when he went down during the Six Nations, but McNamara could also opt to switch Jake Flannery from full-back to out-half.

Sean French looks likely to continue in the number 12 jersey instead of Hawkshaw, with Liam Turner in the outside centre channel.

The wingers also look to have a settled look with Jonathan Wren, another breakout star, and Ulster senior regular Angus Kernohan on the opposite flank.

Options

The full-back slot will depend on McNamara's decision whether or not to move Flannery from the back-field with Rob Russell an option at 15.

Despite all of the setbacks, the head coach is satisfied with the options at his disposal.

"I think one of the things about the team throughout the course of this season and previous seasons is it's a team," McNamara maintained.

"It has been about the collective and not one individual. Whilst we recognise the importance of certain players, I think there are players there who will step up.

"There are some really consistent performers throughout the course of the Six Nations who are absolutely chomping at the bit and ready to go.

"I'm really clear in my own mind and the players are clear that high performance equals people's ability to be adaptable.

"There are going to be challenges, the kick-off times, the travel, the different surface, the different refereeing interpretations and so on.

"It is about our ability to get the best out of ourselves, our ability to be adaptable which will be the key."

Ireland repeatedly defied the odds throughout the Six Nations, and they will have to do so again in what is a tough pool.

However, as their stunning Grand Slam success showed, it would be foolish to back against this group of players.

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