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5 standout stars of Ireland's memorable U20 Grand Slam campaign

Noel McNamara’s squad have a bright future ahead of them.

WHILE ONE OF the key tenets of Ireland’s U20 Grand Slam campaign was the consistency of selection from week-to-week, Noel McNamara also had to delve deeper into his squad as his side’s Six Nations championship gathered momentum. 

Throughout the tournament, there were a number of outstanding performers in green, as Ireland completed just their second clean sweep at this age grade, the class of 2019 emulating Eric Elwood’s star-studded 2007 side.

Many of that team — including Cian Healy, Sean O’Brien and Ian Keatley — progressed to represent Ireland at senior level and there will be similarly high hopes for a supremely talented bunch of young players.

Below, we take a look at five players who really stood out during the championship.

Craig Casey

Craig Casey is tackled by Arthur Vincent Casey played in three of Ireland's five games. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

If there was ever a player to epitomise Ireland’s character and courage, look no further than their totemic scrum-half. Having missed out on last year’s championship through injury, this campaign wasn’t without its frustrations for Casey but in the three games he did feature in, the 19-year-old made a huge impact.

Casey has all the attributes you’d look for in your nine — quick, sharp and brave — and his performances against England and France, in particular, were as impressive as they were influential, the Shannon club man outstanding in both games at Musgrave Park.

A member of the Munster academy, Casey is highly rated and showed just why throughout the campaign, one of the standout moments his tackle on French number eight Jordan Joseph.

The former Ardscoil Ris captain, unfortunately, suffered another injury setback in the act of setting up Ireland’s final try against Les Bleus, again showing his intelligence and selflessness, and subsequently missed the Grand Slam decider against Wales despite being originally named to start.

Casey’s injury profile is a concern at his age but the hope is that he can come out the far side and push on towards this summer’s U20 World Championship and beyond with Munster. 

Dylan Tierney-Martin

Dylan Tierney-Martin and Colm Reilly celebrate after the game Tierney-Martin celebrates victory over Wales with Colm Reilly. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Another player who featured in last year’s World Championship squad, Dylan Tierney-Martin was superb throughout for McNamara’s Ireland, actually finishing as the top try-scorer with five.

The Connacht hooker — MOTM against England — started all five games and formed an excellent front-row partnership with Thomas Clarkson and Josh Wycherley, as Ireland won all of their own scrums throughout the championship.

As a former back rower, Tierney-Martin is a dynamic and athletic player who brings real ball-carrying presence around the park to complement his sound set-piece technique and solid throwing. 

The 19-year-old, a member of the Connacht academy, was relentless in his work-rate and showed his penchant for getting across the whitewash throughout, notably against Wales last Friday night when he caught the home defence off guard with a clever piece of thinking off a collapsed maul. 

He stood out in schools rugby in the back row of St Joseph’s Patrician College, where he was coached by Ambrose Conboy, who is part of McNamara’s U20s coaching staff. The move to the front row has proved to be a masterstroke. 

While there are four senior hookers ahead of him at Connacht, Tierney-Martin has demonstrated his exciting potential in the green of Ireland and certainly, there is much excitement over his future out west.  

Scott Penny

Scott Penny celebrates Penny was superb for Ireland. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

While many of his team-mates will now return to their provinces pushing for first-team opportunities before the end of the season and into next year, Scott Penny’s talent is such that he has already made that senior breakthrough. 

The 19-year-old was only playing in his first U20 Six Nations, but already the Leinster flanker has four Pro14 appearances under his belt and is one of the brightest young prospects in Irish rugby. He showed why over the last two months. 

Penny’s penchant for scoring tries — he already has two to his name for the eastern province — continued throughout this campaign as he grounded at the base of the post against England, but his overall appetite for work, ball-carrying ability and power game makes him a potent weapon at seven.

Part of an influential back row unit alongside John Hodnett and Martin Moloney, Penny also led from the front defensively during another string of performances which only adds to the excitement surrounding his potential at such a young age.

It would have been easy for Leo Cullen to hold Penny back and use him for Leinster’s Pro14 games during the Six Nations, but allowing him to continue his development under McNamara has been another important step for the former St Michael’s man.

He will be a key player for Ireland in Argentina this June, by which stage he may have added to his Leinster senior caps. 

Josh Wycherley 

Josh Wycherley with Ted Hill and Tom Willis Wycherley was impressive in the loose. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

The brother of Munster back row Fineen, Josh Wycherley would have been one of the most recognised players in the Ireland squad at the start of this championship, although if people were unaware of him before this, they almost certainly will be now. 

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Two tries against France will always live long in the memory for the teenage prop, but his work-rate on both sides of the ball was exceptional, as was his quality at the set-piece as Ireland consistently dominated in that facet of the game. 

Wycherley never took a step back, getting through mountains of work, and his excellent handling ability and massive tackling contributions made him catch the eye in the number one jersey. He was also one of Ireland’s go-to carriers throughout.

As was the case with all his team-mates, the west Cork native produced at the big moments for Ireland and he certainly has all the attributes — both physical and technical — to push on and develop into an excellent loosehead for Munster, and perhaps Ireland, going forward.  

Liam Turner 

Liam Turner Turner scored two tries during the campaign. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

The loss of David Hawkshaw to injury halfway through the campaign was a blow for Ireland, but Sean French’s ability to deputise at inside centre was second to none and he slotted in alongside the ever-present Liam Turner seamlessly.

For Turner, the comparisons with Garry Ringrose are inevitable, but the former Blackrock College captain, who guided his school to Senior Cup success in 2018, tread his own path in this tournament.

The 19-year-old started all five of Ireland’s victories, forming a strong midfield partnership with captain Hawkshaw and then Munster’s French. 

As one of McNamara’s leadership group, Turner’s presence in the 13 jersey was an important factor in Ireland’s success, with his decision-making and communication key strengths, while he possesses excellent footwork and acceleration.

Now a member of the Leinster sub-academy, the exciting prospect has played seven AIL games for Trinity this season, making excellent progress in developing all strands of his game, notably his rugby intellect and overall conditioning and that showed on the international stage.

In scoring two tries during this campaign, Turner displayed his strengths on both sides of the ball, bringing plenty of energy and intensity to Ireland’s performances while providing defensive resilience in the busy midfield channel.  

Now Grand Slam champions, the future is very bright for this group. 

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Ryan Bailey

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