Sunday 24 June 2018

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Comment: Solving defensive issues key to Ireland U-20s finishing Six Nations on a high

23 February 2018; Tom Rogers of Wales is tackled by Tommy O'Brien of Ireland during the U20 Six Nations Rugby Championship match between Ireland and Wales at Donnybrook Stadium in Dublin. Photo by David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
23 February 2018; Tom Rogers of Wales is tackled by Tommy O'Brien of Ireland during the U20 Six Nations Rugby Championship match between Ireland and Wales at Donnybrook Stadium in Dublin. Photo by David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

No one can deny that Irish rugby is currently in a good place, and while supporters bask in the glory, rest assured that behind the scenes, those at the top are fully aware that a lot of work lies ahead in the coming weeks.

Joe Schmidt's main task over the next fortnight before Scotland arrive in Dublin, is to tighten up his defence that has been caught too narrow far too often in the opening three Six Nations games.

The same thing applies for Noel McNamara and his U-20s side.

For all the attacking prowess that the U-20s have shown with ball in hand, they are leaking tries at an alarming rate.

16 tries in three games, an average of 5.3 per game, is not good enough at any level, let alone for an U-20s side littered with exciting talents. They have also conceded two more tries than they have scored, which is obviously never a good sign.

For many, stepping up to this level has been a considerable jump, so from that sense mistakes are inevitable. However, Ireland are three games into their campaign and they still seem to be figuring out their defensive structures.

At times against Wales last Friday night, they were caught too narrow out wide, and like Italy and France did in previous weeks, the Welsh punished Ireland.

Players are obviously slotting into new systems, which too are being implemented by a new coach, it must be said.

After he left as Ireland women's head coach, Tom Tierney was tasked with working as the U-20s defence coach, and he too, it would seem is still getting to grips with the new role.

There have been a lot of positives to take from Ireland's opening three games but two defeats has ruined their Six Nations hopes.

Their short-term focus is now on finishing strongly, but with a Junior World Cup to come in France in June, there is plenty still to play for as the players and coaches alike seek to fine tune the game-plan.

Communication also seems to be an issue at times for the players. The back-line was reshuffled somewhat last week, but even still, McNamara will expect more from his players, particularly in the wider channels.

"Yes, they could communicate better, there is no doubt about that," the head coach agreed.

"At times we got caught a little bit narrow defensively and that's definitely down to communication as well.

"We didn't want to be in a position where we are looking to salvage something from the Championship, but ultimately that's the position that we find ourselves in now."

Schmidt and his coaching staff arrived late to the game in Donnybrook last Friday and left early, and in truth, it was difficult to know how much they would have gotten from what they saw.

The U-20s is generally a thrilling spectacle to watch but at times, the defences are loose. Ironically, the same could be said for what we saw at Lansdowne Road last Saturday, but by and large, the defence lays the foundation for victory.

Schmidt would have gotten a much closer look at the some of the players who believes have a bright future ahead of them, when the U-20s were put through their paces by the senior team at an open session at Lansdowne Road this morning.

There have been some real standout performers for Ireland in the championship so far, and chief amongst those has been Jack O'Sullivan.

The Munster Academy number 8 had big boots to fill when Caelan Doris' tore his hamstring back in December, but it says a lot about how well O'Sullivan has performed that Ireland have not greatly missed the player who many believe is the outstanding talent at this level.

Man of the match O'Sullivan put in another powerful display in which he scored two tries. He has certainly caught the eye.

So too has Jack Aungier, who has scrummaged exceptionally well from tighthead, while also displaying his skills in the loose. Perhaps Ireland have another Tadhg Furlong on their hands.

For a position that was once a huge problem in this country, suddenly Ireland look well stocked at tighthead.

Tom O'Toole is an excellent prospect himself and is highly rated in Ulster but he has been unable to force his way into the starting XV, which is a testament to how well Aungier is playing.

Hooker Ronan Kelleher has also been an abrasive force in the front-row, while in the backs, centre Angus Curtis has improved with each passing game.

The team has quite a settled look to it, but it will be interesting to see over the coming weeks if McNamara opts to dip into the talent pool a bit more and blood some other guys ahead of the World Cup.

One win in three probably doesn't tell the full story of how well Ireland have played in stages, but they are still struggling to put a full 80-minute performance together.

That said, if they can rectify their defensive issues, a complete performance should soon follow.

Independent.ie's U-20s Six Nations coverage is in association with PwC

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