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Ulsterman McCann ready to lead Ireland U20 with a little help from his friends

The 19-year-old carries experience of last year’s Grand Slam and World Cup campaign in among a new crop of talent.
Jan 22nd 2020, 6:30 AM 5,194 12

THE ARMBAND, FOR rugby captains, is a metaphorical one. Yet bandages have been a very real feature for Ireland U20 leaders in recent seasons.

From David Hawkshaw last term to Jack Kelly and then Cillian Gallagher in 2017, the superstitious could easily claim to feel a curse upon Ireland’s post-schoolboy skippers.

Ulster academy back row David McCann won’t strike you as the sort to get caught up in hokum. But as he extends an inflexible right hand to greet his interviewers with a loose grip, he will surely hope that his own obligatory captain’s knock is the one he is currently carrying.

Still five months shy of his 20th birthday, the imposing blindside is one of seven men in Noel McNamara’s squad carried over from last season for a second season.

McCann played an important role as replacement throughout the Grand Slam campaign and then returned to U19 duty as captain. At the U20 World Cup in Argentina, he graduated to the starting number six shirt and was among the most impressive performers in Ireland’s pool phase, not least when he contributed two tries in the 42-26 win over England.

Unfortunately, the Ireland pack was denied his power for a second clash with England in the knockout phase. The pool closer against Italy was his last involvement as he was forced off early with a concussion.

“It was disappointing, but it comes with rugby. There’s a lot of injuries, but it’s how you deal with that and how you bounce back,” says the Cooke RFC product.

“I was happy to get back in with Ulster. Train hard and get back fit.”

david-mccann-wins-a-line-out McCann claims a line-out for Ulster A. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Right hand aside, McCann looks in rude health approaching next Friday’s Six Nations opener against Scotland in Cork. Standing 6’5″ he appears heavier than his listed weight of 104kg and there is little doubt he is a figure who will be easy to follow.

He is honoured to take on the U20 captaincy and has a decent track record in these roles having led RBAI to a Senior Cup success after claiming an earlier Medallion Shield.

Now, in year two with Ulster’s academy, he has been able to tap into a former senior national skipper for guidance.

“I only really captained my school in my last year,” says McCann, “sort of built into it, quite liked it.

“I thought it was a good thing, if you’re good at it, to keep going and try to build new skill-sets. I was lucky to have Willie Anderson (in Ulster academy) who has captained Ireland. He’s helped me in that sort of role with Ulster.”

david-mccann McCann in training last year against Craig Casey. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“Growing up and watching the 20s captains, that’s something you desire to be as you go, as you play rugby. Something you’d love to be so, yeah. Great honour.”

Of course, the onus will not rest solely with McCann or even playmakers such as Jack Crowley in the back-line. The captain is one of a seven-strong leadership group which includes vice-captain Thomas Clarkson and four men chasing their U20 debut late this month.

 ”Noel gauged with me how I felt with it. I said I was happy enough because I knew, whatever happened, that leadership group and the group in general – everyone’s supportive and everyone knows how we’re building and how we want to get to where we want to get to.

I think there’s not much pressure on anyone individually. It’s just a group that works well and the leadership group knows their role within that and helping everyone out.”

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“Within the leadership group… Noel expects (all of us) to drive the standards. He doesn’t put too much focus or pressure on the boys who are returning.”

McCann is currently attached to Banbridge and will be eagerly pushing tor senior caps with his province very soon. First, however, he is intent on driving a high work-rate in the squad so they can show off their best through the Six Nations and the summer’s World Rugby U20 Championship in Italy.

“It’s definitely a major thing for us.” he says of the ‘zero-talent’ traits mentioned by McNamara during the squad announcement at Fota Island.

“It’s something that doesn’t require any rugby ability. It’s hard work, thinking about your role. The simple things that anyone should be able to do.

“Once you add that to a talented group that we have, that’s when we really start playing.”

With almost an entirely new squad, there is no promise that this team will play the same brand of rugby as the 2019 champions, but they won’t want for effort when McCann sets out to defend the title.

“There are similarities in the way we train and the way we work. But at the same time there’s a lot of different dynamics. There’s definitely the same level of drive and ambition.

“Playing in Corsica last year with the U19s, it’s a similar group to what we have now and you can tell the bond is there. But it’s still building… it takes time, you can’t force these things.

“When it comes together, you know, and that’s when you start playing your best rugby on the pitch.”

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Sean Farrell

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