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Ireland U-20 young guns get their opportunity to make an impression in front of Schmidt

9 February 2018; Ireland players, from left, Jack Dunne, James McCarthy, Cormac Daly, Peter Sullivan and Harry Byrne, celebrate their first try scored by James McCarthy, during the U20 Six Nations Rugby Championship match between Ireland and Italy at Donnybrook Stadium, in Dublin. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
9 February 2018; Ireland players, from left, Jack Dunne, James McCarthy, Cormac Daly, Peter Sullivan and Harry Byrne, celebrate their first try scored by James McCarthy, during the U20 Six Nations Rugby Championship match between Ireland and Italy at Donnybrook Stadium, in Dublin. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

Ireland's open training sessions are always an interesting spectacle – on one hand you have Joe Schmidt's players blowing off the cobwebs from the previous game, and on the other, you have the U-20s looking to make their presence felt.

On Thursday morning in Dubarry Park, Ireland's next crop of youngsters will mix it with the country's best, when they provide the opposition for the senior team.

If last year's open session Monaghan is anything to go, it should be a feisty affair.

Picture the scene, a group of teenagers, some fresh out of school, are handed a golden opportunity to impress the Ireland head coach.

For some, this kind of chance will never come around again. For others, it's the latest step on their journey to the international stage.

From the senior player's point of view, they don't want these youngsters getting one over on them, especially not with Schmidt watching on closely and definitely not in front of the couple of thousand supporters who will be in attendance.

Tensions run high and the U-20s who don't care about the reputation of the player they are up against, tend to be the ones who catch the eye.

The forwards and backs will split into their separate groups, and last year during the lineout and maul drills, Peter O'Mahony typically didn't take a backward step. When the then U-20s hooker Tadhg McElroy adopted the same mindset, the ensuing clash was inevitable.

Both players kissed and made up afterwards, much to the amusement of bot sets of players and supporters alike. Inside Schmidt must have beaming.

Back in November in the lead up to the final autumn test against Argentina, a similar scenario unfolded when several of Leinster's Academy players were called into Carton House to help with preparations.

Iain Henderson recounted the session, with a wry smile.

"After training today, I don't know whether or not you'd say I was the one with a bit of dog in me," the Ireland and Lions lock said.

"Training got a bit feisty this afternoon, but it was good. There were a couple of young lads in, a couple of young guys from the Leinster Academy.

"They were they were riling boys up, getting them up to high doh. A few boys rose and reacted, let's say. I kept my cool head!

"There was a couple of kiss and make-ups in the huddle afterwards. I think all is good with them now."

It's exactly the kind of hit out that Schmidt will want again this week as preparations for Wales ramp up. The feeling is mutual in Noel McNamara's case.

The new U-20s coach will have learned a lot about his players in the opening two rounds of the Six Nations, but the Clare native is still looking for a complete 80-minute performance.

In the opening round in France, McNamara's charges were like rabbits caught in the headlights as nerves got the better of them in what was a ragged first half performance.

The second however, was an entirely different matter and Ireland showed that they have plenty of potential when they click as a unit.

Taking that momentum into last Friday's home game against Italy, McNamara's charges took full advantage of an early red card to blitz the Azzurri, but as was the case in the previous week, they were unable to put two 40 minute performances together.

Ireland lacked energy in what was a poor second half display, but crucially they got the job done in the end.

Despite their numerical disadvantage, Italy exposed some defensive frailties, and when Ireland's big guns arrive in Athlone on Thursday, Schmidt's men will do so to a much greater extent.

It's an ideal place to be, all told. The U-20 age-grade is all about learning and in the first two games, solid foundations have been put in place.

The scrum has largely gone well with props Jordan Duggan and Jack Aungier demonstrating their ability in the set-piece as well as in the loose.

Eoghan Clarke deserves huge credit too for the manner in which he performed in Donnybrook after being a called up as a late replacement for Ronan Kelleher who was ill.

Speaking of illness, Jack O'Sullivan lasted 40-minutes and was excellent yet again. Little did anyone outside of the squad know, but the Munster No 8 had also been quite unwell last week.

It typifies the hunger that these young players have to succeed. They only need to look at Jacob Stockdale, Andrew Porter and Jordan Larmour at Lansdowne Road on Saturday.

All three are very recent graduates from the U-20s, and the path that they have laid is inspiring this year's squad to follow their lead.

Hugh O'Sullivan was Belvedere College's full-back when they won the Senior Cup for the last two years, but he has long been marked out as a scrum-half.

Playing with Clontarf in the AIL this season has certainly aided his development, and after a good performance from his new position against Italy, O'Sullivan showed his versatility again, when he switched to full-back late on.

James Hume's return to fitness is a also significant boost for McNamara and Ireland's Six Nations hopes. A potential centre partnership with Tommy O'Brien looks exciting.

The U-20s captain has showed flashes of his undoubted potential, and he is one who Schmidt will be keeping a very close eye on this week.

The squad were given a few days off after Friday's bonus point win and will reconvene on Wednesday to review the Italy game, before looking ahead to the trip to Athlone.

Supporters will flock to the home of Buccaneers hoping to meet the current big names, but amongst the players on show, the stars of tomorrow will be doing their best to ensure that the fans leave the ground remembering their name.

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

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