Saturday 28 January 2023 Dublin: 4°C
# History makers
Carolan and his U20s mark out their rich potential in landmark win
The likes of James Ryan and Andrew Porter look built for professional rugby.

IT WAS ALWAYS going to take something truly special for an Ireland international men’s team to finally beat New Zealand, and that’s what Nigel Carolan’s promising U20s crop delivered in Manchester for a stunning 33-24 victory.

In the pouring rain, James Ryan’s side marked themselves out as World Rugby U20 Championship contenders with their second huge win in four days.

Hugo Keenan is tackled by Mitchell Jacobson Camerasport / Dave Howarth/INPHO Huge Keenan on the carry for Ireland. Camerasport / Dave Howarth/INPHO / Dave Howarth/INPHO

This three-try win over the Kiwis follows up Tuesday’s shock victory over Grand Slam holders Wales and a clash with Georgia in the final pool game on Wednesday is the next step.

This upset of the Kiwis was no mere smash-and-grab from Carolan’s side, who were totally deserving winners after a game in which their forward pack muscularly laid the platform.

Second row Ryan was, unsurprisingly, in the thick of everything. Every single one of this seven appearances for the Ireland U20s has been superb and he looks to be a huge prospect for Irish rugby moving forward.

The 6’8″ lock’s athleticism is impressive and he possesses an assurance and composure beyond his years. To go along with those attributes, his set-piece work is excellent and Ryan can also play ball.

Though Leinster have a solid crop of second rows in their senior squad at present, Ryan will surely win his first provincial caps next season.

The captain was named man of the match in the win over New Zealand but that honour could very well have gone to destructive loosehead prop Andrew Porter. The UCD man is a unique physical specimen and marries his power with real scrummaging skill.

Porter repeatedly took the Kiwi scrum apart and again impressed in the loose with his energetic ball carrying. In the front row alongside him, Ulster hooker Adam McBurney scored a superb first-half try in an all-action display and tighthead Ben Betts suggested Munster have a fine prospect on their hands with another huge shift.

Connacht man Cillian Gallagher will be underage for the U20s next season again but looked the equal of his New Zealand opponents. Having played in the back row in the Six Nations this season, his athleticism is obvious and he put it to good use while also getting the dirty work done in the tight.

Max Deegan goes over for his team's third try Camerasport / Dave Howarth/INPHO Deegan was excellent at number eight again. Camerasport / Dave Howarth/INPHO / Dave Howarth/INPHO

Number eight Max Deegan was a try scorer in the second half, finishing the crucial third for Ireland, and was part of an outstanding back row unit. Greg Jones – another UCD player – also dotted down in a brilliant showing, while David Aspil of St. Mary’s again showed Ireland what they were missing during the Six Nations.

Out-half Bill Johnston was perhaps the most impressive Ireland player in the opening half as they built a 20-14 lead. He was forced off with a serious-looking shoulder injury at the break, but he too has another year at this level next season.

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Having played three games for Munster last summer during pre-season, the Clonmel man is well-flagged as a prospect and his future looks particularly bright. Johnny McPhillips of the Ulster academy replaced him to great effect today, with his touchline conversion of Deegan’s try showing his composure.

Inside the out-halves, Sligo man Stephen Kerins was a real livewire again. His rapid service allowed Ireland to pressure the Kiwis when in possession and he appears to be a strong organiser. His looks suited to the way Connacht’s senior team are playing.

Conor O’Brien of Clontarf and Cork Con man Shane Daly were powerful in the midfield of a game that demanded they face up to the heavily-lauded Kiwi centre Jordie Barrett. Certainly the younger brother of All Black Beauden shone, but Ireland’s midfielders were strong too. Daly’s huge hit in the second half was a tone setter.

Ulsterman Jacob Stockdale, who has already played Pro12 rugby, was assured throughout at the back and his big left boot was particularly useful in the torrid weather conditions.

Hugo Keenan stood out on the left wing and enjoyed the increased flow of possession that came his way against the Kiwis. Over on the right, Matthew Byrne didn’t have as many opportunities to break out but he too was aggressive whenever the opportunity arose.

The replacements bench played a major role too, particularly the front row with Vincent O’Brien and debutant Vakh Abdaladze. That pair ensured the scrum dominance continued.

Nigel Carolan Ryan Byrne / INPHO Carolan is the Ireland U20s head coach. Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

Kelvin Brown again made an impact in the back row, almost scoring a try, while Sean O’Connor finished the game at lock. Centre Jimmy O’Brien, another fine prospect, had two stints in the centre as a replacement too.

Head coach Carolan’s reputation will deservedly soar with this victory. He has been working wonders with the Connacht academy for some years now and has seen this particular group of U20s develop rapidly.

After defeats to Wales and France in the opening two games of the Six Nations, Ireland have not lost a competitive game since. A winning run against England, Italy, Scotland, Wales and now New Zealand looks very good.

Most impressively, these young players genuinely appear to have cut out the types of error that cost them in those two defeats to Wales and France. They have found balance in their game and match skill level to pure work rate and aggression.

Though Carolan himself would stress that the U20 age grade remains a development tool, it is encouraging to see Ireland performing as a cohesive unit. Although this mature team will focus on the challenges that lie directly ahead in the short-term, the future does look bright.

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