Sunday 18 March 2018

Tony Ward: Ripple effect from Connacht success allows U-20s to make their own splash

Ireland U-20s star Max Deegan. Photo: Sportsfile
Ireland U-20s star Max Deegan. Photo: Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Later on today in Port Elizabeth, South Africa and soon after in Manchester, England an extraordinarily long rugby season comes to an end. A long overdue end but what a climax for Irish rugby. Turn the clock back to this time last year and the excitement was palpable. The build-up to Rugby World Cup 2015 was under way and, if we're honest, our expectations far exceeded our ability.

What transpired, for many differing reasons, was a tame exit as yet again our shop window side failed to deliver on the global stage. The knock-on effect was immediate with our provincial teams under-firing in the Champions Cup.

Coming up to Christmas and the accepted mid-season point, rugby optimism was on the deck. To be fair, the Six Nations had its moments and a glimmer of light did appear.

And then there was Connacht. The story is well flogged at this stage but it is because of that that we have two Ireland teams chasing history in different parts of the world today. The boost to Irish rugby from west of the Shannon has been incalculable and is set to grow from here.

Back in February the U-20s kicked off their competitive season by way of a 35-24 defeat to Wales in a seven-try thriller on a bitterly cold Donnybrook evening. That outstanding Welsh underage side - rated the most talented group to represent the Principality at this level - went on to take the Grand Slam and championship.

We lost to the Scots but in beating England at Kingston Park, Nigel Carolan began a winning sequence that stretches now to seven on the bounce between Six Nations and World Cup.

Beating the Welsh in the opening game by the narrowest of margins was the key.

To follow that up with a first ever male victory over New Zealand at international level made for something else again. The expectations now are well founded despite going into today's World Cup final as undoubted underdogs given the venue and pedigree of the opposition.

For England, this will be their seventh final appearance in the nine up to and including today's mouthwatering showdown. Only once, in 2012, have they failed to make it through to the last four. By contrast, only once have we(in 2014) qualified for the penultimate phase when eventually finishing fourth.

So, irrespective of the outcome, James Ryan's new generation have already set the bar at a new height when making it through to the tournament finale.

Before the Six Nations kicked off talk was of an Irish pack capable of mixing it with the very best.

Despite some outstanding individual performances, the collective flattered to deceive and inconsistency, not just between matches but within the 80 minutes, was the over-riding theme but since that win in Newcastle the transformation and growth in confidence has been marked.

Of course there have been changes, enforced and otherwise, with 13 (nine starters and four replacements) of the 23 so impressive against Argentina in the semi-final on board throughout the Six Nations earlier.

The addition of players like Jacob Stockdale (involved with the Ulster senior squad), David Aspil (a revelation since breaking through at St Mary's and living proof of the importance of the All-Ireland League for the development of emerging talent) and Greg Jones (who sat beside me at a rugby fundraiser when having no involvement prior to kick-off at that season-opener against the Welsh).

To these three add the likes of Ben Betts, Sean O'Connor, Vincent O'Brien, Adam Coyle, Niall Saunders (son of former Ireland captain and scrum-half Rob) and you get the gist of another talented crop of players coming through our excellent underage system.

We can take nothing for granted, which is why I repeat time and again my trust in our school and youth (club) underage development. I see it at first-hand and in terms of structure it is second to none.

Am I surprised at us beating New Zealand and making it through to a World Cup final at this level? No, not in the least.

But it is going to be extremely difficult against the English given their history, tradition and tournament record plus home comfort but more than anything a vast reservoir of talent in terms of playing numbers at this level.

Harry Mallinder is already a seasoned campaigner at senior club level, while in the Maxes - Malins at full-back and Green alongside Mallinder at half-back - they possess serious drivers in key positions.

The pack, moulded around Huw Taylor and George Nott, is typically bulldog English. But we have our own Super Max at No 8. Along with Mallinder, Max Deegan has been nominated for Player of the Tournament, a worthy recognition.

It is always difficult to tell players who will make the transition but for those new to seeing this group perform, apart from Deegan, Ryan, Aspil and Jones, watch for Andrew Porter, Shane Daly and a developing gem in Stephen Kerins.

Irish Independent

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