Saturday 20 October 2018

Comment: Whether Ireland can learn the lessons of the Six Nations will define how their World Cup summer goes

16 March 2018; Tommy O'Brien of Ireland celebrates scoring his side's second try during the U20 Six Nations Rugby Championship match between England and Ireland at the Ricoh Arena in Coventry, England. Photo by Harry Murphy/Sportsfile
16 March 2018; Tommy O'Brien of Ireland celebrates scoring his side's second try during the U20 Six Nations Rugby Championship match between England and Ireland at the Ricoh Arena in Coventry, England. Photo by Harry Murphy/Sportsfile
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

The battered and bruised Irish bodies, or the 13 of them who had managed to finish the game, collapsed to the turf at the final whistle.

A 48-15 scoreline didn't quite reflect how close the contest was for almost an hour, but ultimately, the Ireland U-20s were handed a harsh lesson by England in what it takes to win at this level.

It was a bitterly disappointing way to round off a Six Nations campaign that had plenty of highs and lows as attentions already begin to turn to June's Junior World Cup in France.

Sean Masterson (shoulder) and Eoghan Clarke (hip) suffered serious injuries that puts their summer ambitions in doubt, while Michael Silvester and Angus Curtis also picked up knocks in what was a brutally physical game at the Ricoh Arena.

Ireland withstood and indeed dished out a lot of that physicality in an outstanding first half performance that was the best 40 minutes that Noel McNamara's youngsters played throughout the championship.

They will have regrets however as they scored a quality try of their own through James Hume, but they conceded two really soft scores that will have frustrated the life out of the coaching staff.

The second half blitz was compounded by the injury toll, which will leave McNamara having to dig deep into the talent pool, particularly at hooker.

Clarke's nightmare trip to Coventry began during the warm-up when he accidentally had his mouth split open. The wound required several stitches before the decision was made to instead start the hooker on the bench.

When Clarke was eventually introduced as a second half substitute he had to be stretched off with a suspected dislocated hip. It was horrendous luck for a young player who has plenty of potential.

With first choice hooker Ronan Kelleher already in a race to be fit for the World Cup, having picked up a shoulder problem in the win over Scotland, Ireland may have to turn to their U-19s players for back up.

Caelan Doris and Dan Hurley should however return from their respective injuries that meant that they missed the entire Six Nations, while Aaron Hall and Cormac Daly are also due back.

The players returned to their provinces this week and a large chunk of them will be involved in the British and Irish Cup quarter-finals in a fortnight, with Leinster, Munster and Ulster's 'A' sides all in action.

They will continue to play in the All-Ireland League, which is a very important breeding ground, before they will reconvene for an U-20s camp at the end of April.

Ireland are due to play Scotland away in a warm-up game, while they will also be involved in a 'training exercise' against Japan in Dublin.

The main challenge ahead for the coaching staff is to try and get this squad to play for a full 80 minutes. Lapses in concentration proved costly over the last few weeks and the challenge won't get any easier in June.

Hosts France lie in wait in what is a seriously competitive pool that also includes South Africa and Georgia.

"Listen, it is going to be a process," McNamara admitted.

"Unfortunately there is no silver bullet. It's about identifying what we did well. It's about looking at fixing what we didn't.

"Those lapses in concentration, that's what elite sport is about – not having those little errors. I think ultimately, the lads who learn those lessons and have the ability to do that, are the guys who go on and have really good careers at pro level."

Ireland ended up finishing third in table, behind winners France and second-placed England, but the eight-point gap and the amount of tries conceded will be a major concern.

Ireland conceded 26 tries in the five games, the second worst record in the tournament after Italy and Scotland (27 each). The defensive issues must be rectified before the World Cup because France and South Africa, and indeed an improving Georgian side, will also punish them.

In all, Ireland will have regrets when they reflect on their campaign, but they must not lose focus of the positives.

Whether or not they prove that they have learned from their mistakes will define how their summer goes.

Independent.ie's World Rugby U-20s Championship coverage is in association with PwC

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