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Fierce and frenetic contest leaves Ireland U20s a sniff of Six Nations title

Watching Noel McNamara’s men hasn’t been good for the heart, but they’ve fought long and hard enough to stay in the hunt for silverware.

Jack O'Sullivan celebrate's his man-of-the-match performance in Donnybrook.
Jack O'Sullivan celebrate's his man-of-the-match performance in Donnybrook.
Image: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

IT’S BEEN A bit of roller-coaster, this Six Nations campaign for Ireland’s under 20s. But they have hung on just tight enough to set up a potentially thrilling finish.

Despite losing two of their four helter-skelter matches, Noel McNamara will take his side to Coventry this Friday knowing they are still in with a chance of taking the trophy home.

The impressive France outfit Ireland fell to on opening night look destined for a Grand Slam, but didn’t manage even a losing bonus point in their Friday night clash with England. So the two powerhouses go to the final day with 15 points apiece. Ireland are three points further back on 12 points.

To succeed, Ireland will need Wales to produce a massive bounce-back performance to beat Les Bleus in Colwyn Bay after losing to Italy, not to mention the small matter of beating England by more than seven at the Ricoh Arena.

“We’re in a position now where we’re going to the Ricoh with an opportunity to win it,” McNamara said after Friday’s 30 – 25 win over Scotland in Donnybrook.

“We could have a far better opportunity. France away, we had a kick right at the end of the game to get a point, we could have kicked to the corner for an opportunity to get two points. We scored three tries away in France.

“The overriding feeling I’d have over three (home) games is that, yes we could be in a better position, but we’ve given some exposure to some really good players and the future of those players is really positive.

There are a lot of people very excited about these players. People are going away and talking about guys they never heard of before.”

While England are likely to be well-stacked for the Coventry clash, Ireland’s hopes will be strengthened by the form of Corkman Jack O’Sullivan and the Ulster trio of Angus Curtis, Tom O’Toole and Matthew Agnew. Unfortunately, hooker Ronan Kelleher looks set to miss out after suffering a shoulder injury.

Curtis and O’Sullivan were at the heart of Ireland’s excellent early start against Scotland, and the big number eight powered over the try-line twice for the second match running.

Agnew, meanwhile, was responsible for a vital breakdown penalty to tilt the contest back Ireland’s way after Kyle Rowe punished a couple of compounding errors to bring Scotland back in the game.

Michael Silvester dejected after Kyle Rowe scored a try Michael Silvester reacts to Rowe's second half try. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

While concerning defensive moments moments have been a constant shadow of Ireland’s performances in this Championship, their unwillingness to wilt when the competition heats up is a quality they can build on.

“Little moments like that, the reality is it’s not necessarily talent, it’s the character of the boys that’s revealed in those moments,” says McNamara.

“Momentum shifts change the flow of the games and at times we came up with big plays: Jack O’Sullivan stripped a ball inside the 22 near the end which was a big moment. There are lot of little instances. In the first half the ball went to deck, they had an opportunity to counter attack, (but) Hugh O’Sullivan put a body on it, killed the scrap and we deal comfortably with the scrum.

“I think we came up with the answer a lot of the time, equally we’re giving ourselves opportunities to come up with those answers with some of our errors.

“I would certainly feel we’ve grown as a group and some of the areas that hurt us against Wales, we dealt with much better.”

It would be overly reductive to say that Wales’ weekend loss to Italy, viewed alongside with their win in Dublin, shows the limitations of this Ireland team. You could just as easily argue that Ireland are favourites in Coventry having defeated Scotland a fortnight after they won with a bonus point against England U20s.

Tommy O'Brien tackled by Stafford McDowall and Bradley Clements Tommy O'Brien makes a break. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

It may be partly down to youthful inconsistency, but this year’s U20 crop have proven well-matched.

“When you look at the overall context of the Championship, it is competitive,” adds McNamara.

“There’s no question we’re making mistakes, but they’re being punished by good teams. You have to take the positives, we scored four tries, bonus point win.

“We’re disappointed with how it finished up, but it’s important not to make the win joyless.”

There’ll be no danger of that if they can earn a third win and end the campaign on a high.

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Sean Farrell

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