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Dublin: 4°C Tuesday 26 January 2021

Ireland U20s can keep Six Nations hopes alive by crashing England's crisis corridor

Ulster hooker and former U20 captain Niall Annett believes Mike Ruddock’s young charges can keep their championship alive at Franklin’s Gardens.

Ireland’s Jack O’Donoghue scores the opening try against Scotland.
Ireland’s Jack O’Donoghue scores the opening try against Scotland.
Image: ©INPHO/James Crombie

I PLAYED TWO full seasons of U20 rugby and only missed two games in all of that time due to a concussion and a knee injury. I was gutted about that but we didn’t have a bad guy to lead the team in my absence. His name was Jordi Murphy.

We won the U20 Six Nations in my first season with the team. We had some great players in Simon Zebo, Dominic Ryan, Rhys Ruddock and Nevin Spence. The Junior World Championship was in Argentina that year but we disappointed. We lost to France by a point but were well beaten by England.

We beat England U20s at Kingsholm the first time I ever faced them. That was as good as it got, however, as they had our number on the three other times I faced them. They never veered too far off the senior team’s game-plan — they play big men, try to take you at the scrum, break you with their maul, use the back-rows to get over the gainline and play lads with serious wheels in the backline.

My memory of playing England at Under 20 was that they were always humongous. They train them differently and build them up earlier. We came up against lads that have made the breakthrough at senior level now — Tom Clegg, Jamie George, Freddie Burns and Christian Wade, with Joe Marler, Mako Vunipola in their front row. The best U20 I ever played against was Matt Kvesic, who is now with Gloucester.

Joe Marler Joe Marler: 23-years-old and tipping the scales at just under 20st. Source: ©INPHO/James Crombie

Mike Ruddock, who coached me in my second year with the team, is still at the Irish helm and he is someone who likes to play the game at a high tempo. He always encourages guys to get in behind teams and use their footwork to get into what he likes to call the crisis corridor. He wants his players to get over that gainline but also provide strong set-pieces. You have to earn the respect of the other team first before you do anything else.

There are only two Ulster lads in the current U20 squad but they are both vital to their championship hopes. David Busby is being used at fullback. He’s a great player and one I’ve played with quite a bit with Ulster Ravens [A Team]. He’s comfortable anywhere in the back three. Frank Taggart missed the Scotland win and came off the bench in the home defeat to Wales. The Irish back row is perhaps their best unit but I feel Jack could really add an extra ball-carrying threat if given the chance against England.

As a hooker, I was impressed with Munster’s Max Abbott against Wales. The weather at Dubarry Park made it a tough old time at the lineout but his throwing percentages were right up there. Jack O’Donoghue at No.8 really h-as something about him and I like the looks of Peter Dooley [Leinster], who carried well against Wales. The captain Dan Leavy is someone who has been on the radar for many years now, it seems, and he has also stood out in that back row.

The main threats England possess come in the huge forms of outside centre Nick Tompkins and their No.8 James Chisholm, who looks like a lump of a lad. Both are the main frontline and backline ball carriers so Ireland will be making a good start if they can shut that duo down.

Given the disparity in size between the two packs, England will be looking to come after Ireland at the scrum-time in Franklin’s Gardens. The Irish pack will need to keep that scrum strong, stay low and get the back five to really drive in to support the front row. They are an absolutely enormous side but that hasn’t stopped Ireland from beating teams like that in the past.

@NiallAnnett2 played 18 games for Ireland U20s and captained the side on 11 occasions. He currently plays hooker with Ulster.

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About the author:

Niall Annett

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