Monday 30 January 2023 Dublin: 8°C
Pablo Gasparini/INPHO
# Green shoots
Brilliant and bloody-minded U20s deliver wealth of promise
Noel McNamara’s men were more than boys of summer.

PURELY BINARY READING of Ireland’s U20 World Cup campaign will never add up to the complete picture.

Three losses from five outings, resulting in an eighth-place finish clearly was never anyone’s idea of success in this tournament. But for this Ireland group the flashes of brilliance, the unlikely rallies and the sheer bloody-mindedness were bright shining silver linings through the cloud of defeats to New Zealand, England and Australia.

At this level, lest we forget, winning at all costs is not the name of the game. It’s a competition to bring the top tier of rugby talent on this island on up a few more steps. Some of them will be ready for the Pro14 this year, others will have to plug away in their provinces academy or even their club. But the experience of this whirlwind 10-game run  through the Six Nations and World Cup will not be shaken off lightly.

By beating Australia in last night’s final, France proved themselves to be the world class standard for a second year running. Ireland defeated them in Cork.

Those Junior Wallabies shut out New Zealand earlier this year and, with 14 men, Ireland gave them a serious scare before the weight of fatigue won out in matchday two.

England thrashed Australia in matchday three and are never far off at this level. But they were twice beaten by Noel McNamara’s men and were pegged back to level terms in the third meeting before ultimately forcing their way over for a win with the clock turned 80.

Charlie Ryan celebrates at the full time whistle Oisin Keniry / INPHO Charlie Ryan leads celebrations against France, the night Ireland won the Six Nations. Oisin Keniry / INPHO / INPHO

Facing New Zealand yesterday – a far more enticing fixture than another run against Wales – was set up to be a severely chastening experience for a patched-up, battered and bruised set of boys in green. yet even as they looked down the barrel of a drubbing, they showed off the trait that has defined their run to a Grand Slam and this entertaining World Cup. They gritted their teeth, drove harder in contact, loosened up in attack and insisted on making a game of a match that ought to have been long dead.

We have previously dwelt, too long, on the list of missing men from this squad, those who shone in the Six Nations success and were denied the trip to Argentina due to injury. But with another half-dozen added to that handful during the tournament, defeatism would have been all too easy to come about if the Charlie Ryan-skippered group were not bullishly intent on overcoming ever-lengthening odds.

Men like Ryan and his vice captain Craig Casey deserve enormous credit for leading the effort. And they were not short of excellent performers slotting into vacancies. Of that number, Garryowen’s Ben Healy really delivered a star turn when given his chance.

Having already impacted as a string-pulling replacement in the opening round win over England, he started at 10 in the loss when his terrific repertoire of kicking was on full display.

Jake Flannery Pablo Gasparini / INPHO Jake Flannery on the attack against New Zealand yesterday. Pablo Gasparini / INPHO / INPHO

Healy was unfortunate not to play more as McNamara favoured the running threat of Jake Flannery, who used his ability with aplomb when his side required a sharp boost in tempo. But they also played in tandem as dual playmakers, to exhilarating effect.

In a tournament where games came thick and fast and fatigue and injury followed at an alarming rate, Flannery and centre Liam Turner were veritable men of steel in this team, starting all 10 matches through the Six Nations and World Cup.  Flannery seamlessly switched from fullback to 10 and back, while Turner’s work-rate never dipped throughout his 800 minutes and he held the 13 shirt alongside multiple midfield partners.

It has been too easy to point at the missing men from this side, when really we should be commending those who were on the field for their effort.

Dylan Tierney-Martin has been a force of nature from the first of February until now and Connacht fans can look forward to an abrasive, groundhog of a hooker (who can handle being bitten along the way) coming through the ranks.

Ulster already knew they had a gem in Angus Kernohan before the 20s season got underway and Stewart Moore’s brief cameo in Argentina copper-fastened the excitement around him.

Craig Casey is Munster. And Flannery, Healy and Sean French could add a fully-rounded array of attacking options for the southern province’s long-term back-line.

Leinster supporters don’t need reminding about the wealth of resources bubbling up from their academy, but – aside from his red card against Australia – Ryan Baird’s power and physicality gave no reason for the anticipation of his rise to cease compounding.

Injuries necessitated his move out of the second row this month, but he looked the part in the back row and it is easy to imagine him the number 6 shirt for Leinster next season.

Craig Casey offloads to Ryan Baird to score a try Pablo Gasparini / INPHO Craig Casey pops up an offload for Ryan Baird's brilliant try against New Zealand. Pablo Gasparini / INPHO / INPHO

Read in binary form as WWWWWWLWLL, Ireland’s U20 season may or may not be impressive to you. But it has been about far more than final scores.

It’s about all the men mentioned above and many more besides. It’s about clinical mauls, vicious approaches to the breakdown, tenacious comebacks from double-digit deficits. It was about new faces slotting in and young men thinking on their feet to find a way to the try-line, no matter the obstacle.

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