Friday 22 March 2019

History beckons for Grand Slam-chasing Ireland U-20s

Ireland Rugby U20 head coach Noel McNamara. Photo: ©INPHO/Morgan Treacy
Ireland Rugby U20 head coach Noel McNamara. Photo: ©INPHO/Morgan Treacy
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

Two years ago, the majority of the current Ireland U-20s team were losing 17-0 at half-time against Wales, before a stunning second-half comeback saw them turn things around and run out 19-17 winners.

After the U-18 game, Noel McNamara gathered his players and told them: "Boys, you will win an U-20s Six Nations."

Needless to day, there were plenty of quizzical looks from the group, but McNamara saw something in them on that day in Wales.

These things tend to come full circle, so perhaps it is fitting that Ireland return to Wales this evening as 2019 Six Nations champions and chasing just a second Grand Slam in the country's history at this level.

"That could have gone either way," McNamara smiles, as he recalls that fateful day in Wales two years ago.

"I mentioned it to them at the start of the year actually and the only who remembered was Liam Turner.

"They have been a group who have always had that ability. There is also not a huge turnover from that team.

"It's an example of Irish rugby working. That's the pathway. I think they have built a really strong connection and I think that has been really clear throughout.

"We went for dinner last Monday and you could hardly hear yourself in the restaurant because guys are chatting. There is nobody on their phones.

"It's a group that just really get on with each other and they really enjoy each other's company. That has been a significant factor."

The Ireland U-20s have never won in Colwyn Bay, but that statistic won't come into the equation for this fearless group, who have already shown plenty of heart and skill to see off quality England and France teams.

Wales have endured a hit-and-miss campaign, winning two and losing two, whereas Ireland have seen off all-comers thus far.

They have one more hurdle left to jump as they look to emulate the 2007 Grand Slam-winning team, which included the likes of Keith Earls, Cian Healy and Felix Jones.

"I think it's a special group of people, there is absolutely no doubt about that because if you could make it happen, you make it happen with every team," McNamara insisted.

"You can create opportunities, you can try and see but when these types of things happen organically they are always way stronger than if it is trying to be forged."

The pack, which is unchanged for a fifth consecutive game, will be crucial to laying the platform for this electric back-line led by Craig Casey and Harry Byrne to ignite.

The Grand Slam is within touching distance and no one within the squad is shying away from it.

"The thing for us was, we weren't afraid of it," McNamara added. "It was never a banned word. It was never something that wasn't spoken about.

"History is watching and this is an opportunity for them to write another little chapter and set the bar a little bit higher for next year's team.

"That's certainly something that they've worked really hard at doing up to this point. I've absolutely no doubt they will again."

Verdict: Ireland

Wales U-20s - C Evans; T Lewis, T Thomas-Wheeler, A Owen, I Davies; S Costelow, D Buckland; R Davies, D Lake (capt), B Warren; E Scragg, T Williams; E Thomas, J Morgan, I Rees. Reps: W Griffiths, T Devine, N English, J Price, I Rhys Davies, D Babos, M Llewellyn, R Conbeer.

Ireland U-20s - J Flannery; A Kernohan, L Turner, S French, J Wren; H Byrne, C Casey; J Wycherley, D Tierney-Martin, T Clarkson; C Ryan, N Murray; M Moloney,, S Penny, J Hodnett.

Wales U-20s v Ireland U-20s, Live, RTÉ 2, 7.05

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