Tuesday 15 October 2019

'It's a rare opportunity' - Ireland under-20s relishing the challenge of creating Grand Slam history in Wales

Liam Turner, left, and John Hodnett of Ireland celebrate after the U20 Six Nations Rugby Championship match between Ireland and France at Irish Independent Park in Cork. Photo by Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Liam Turner, left, and John Hodnett of Ireland celebrate after the U20 Six Nations Rugby Championship match between Ireland and France at Irish Independent Park in Cork. Photo by Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

Long after the final whistle had sounded and the television cameras had been switched off, the majority of the sold out crowd remained in Irish Independent Park to salute the heroes of today, stars of tomorrow.

Sitting close to the press box, Munster's Fineen Wycherley hit every tackle and carried every ball as he watched his younger brother Josh score a brace of tries in a man-of-the-match performance that ultimately helped the Ireland U-20s secure the Six Nations title.

It is only two years since Wycherley was playing on the same stage and rapid progress that he has since made with the Munster team is the kind of lead that his brother and the rest of these hugely talented youngsters are hoping to follow.

That there were no wild celebrations as soon as the initial euphoria following the full-time whistle died down, spoke volumes for the character and mindset of this group.

They may have won only the country's second Six Nations in 15 years, yet they had already switched their focus to finishing the job by winning the Grand Slam in Wales on Friday.

This year's U-20s team have rather flown under the radar and while those who suspected that the stunning win over England last month may have been a flash a pan, what they have gone on to achieve since has been nothing short of remarkable.

That they managed to beat the current world champions France, who like England are a star-studded team, without two of their key players in the vital 10-12 axis made last night's 31-29 victory all the more impressive.

Captain David Hawkshaw (knee) will miss the trip to Wales, but out-half Harry Byrne (hip) has a chance of recovering in time.

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Head coach Noel McNamara will not be sweating as much as he might have been however, as Ben Healy seamlessly stepped in and pulled the strings in the 10 jersey, while Sean French was outstanding at first centre.

McNamara will hope that Craig Casey's latest knee injury is not serious. He will be assessed in the coming days. The electric scrum-half may be small in stature but boy does he pack a punch!

Casey has arguably been Ireland's best player in the championship and that he injured himself selflessly setting up the crucial third try for Callum Reid typified the kind of team player he is.

Casey's thumping tackle on the reigning world player of the year Jordan Joesph, who regularly plays for Racing 92 in the Top 14, was a sight to behold as all 76kg of the Limerick native dumped 110kg of the powerful No 8 to the floor.

“Absolutely, he's had a strong Championship,” McNamara enthused.

“If you were picking a team of the tournament, he'd be a strong contender, but I think we've a few of those.”

That they do. Up front, Ireland have proved time and time again throughout the campaign that size is still not everything in this game.

Despite coming up against bigger, more powerful scrums, they have held their own and given as good as they have got.

Hooker Dylan Tierney-Martin has been central to that, while Thomas Clarkson, who is underage again next year, already looks like a certain future international tighthead.

Charlie Ryan captained the team well for the first time and called the lineout alongside Niall Murray whose first half cover tackle proved crucial.

The back-row of Martin Moloney, Scott Penny and John Hodnett has had a settled look to it and they have benefitted from that game time together as they each perfectly compliment each other.

Casey and Healy linked well throughout as the scrum-half's silver service allowed his out-half to control the tempo and get the likes of French and Jake Flannery, who regularly offered himself as a second play-maker, into the game.

Outside centre Liam Turner has quietly been one of Ireland's standout performers, while so too has winger Jonathan Wren, who does the basics well and has that bit of x-factor about him too.

You could say the same thing about Angus Kernohan, even though the Ulster winer is still waiting for that one moment to light up the tournament.

The page will quickly turn however, because as the players and coaches see it, the job is only half done.

“I think it says a little bit about the mentality of the group,” McNamara insisted.

“The reality is they recognise the opportunity. There are very few people in the history of Irish rugby who have managed to win a Grand Slam.

“So it's a fantastic opportunity they have next week to go and do that, achieve something really special as a group and there'll be plenty of time afterwards to reflect on the Six Nations.

“The lads are under no illusions that was not a complete performance by any stretch of the imagination.

“They've shown an awful lot of character. And they've done that through the course of the Championship – when they've been asked tough questions, they've managed to come up with solutions.

“There's a lot of belief in the group in how they play and what they're doing. A consequence of having been there before, experience is amazing.

“That French team last year was a brilliant team. They didn't win the Grand Slam, though they won the Championship.

“It's a rare opportunity and if you can' relish that, you're in the wrong business.

“We haven't the best record in Colwyn Bay. It's a difficult place to go and get a result.

"That's a great challenge. This group is motivated by challenge. They're not going to be diminished by any of those things.”

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