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Ben Brady/INPHO Ireland, U20s Six Nations and Grand Slam champions.
# that night in cork
'They bonded really tightly. It's amazing to see the provincial barriers broken down'
Ireland head coach Richie Murphy joked post-game that he was more worried about his side becoming fatigued from ping pong than from rugby.

ULSTER’S REUBEN CROTHERS, beaming beneath the hum of a capacity crowd at Musgrave Park which had watched him skipper Ireland U20s to arguably their most impressive Grand Slam of the three they have won at this age grade since 2007, gave an insight into the shared mindset of this unbeaten group: “I think, most importantly, we take each moment as it comes,” said the Ballynahinch man. “We’ve just got that attitude: ‘win the next moment. Win the next moment.’ That just keeps us resetting every time to continuously get better and improve every week.”

But it was, truly, about the group.

“Honestly, I couldn’t be prouder of the boys,” Crothers said. “They put in some shift today.

And credit to the lads in the matchday 23 but it wasn’t just them; we had a huge squad coming into the Six Nations and credit to the families, the support staff, everyone who supported the boys tonight. It wouldn’t have happened without them.

reuben-crothers-celebrates-with-the-ireland-team-as-under-20-six-nations-champions Ben Brady / INPHO Reuben Crothers raises aloft the U20 Six Nations trophy in the Ireland dressing room. Ben Brady / INPHO / INPHO

Crothers was imperious throughout the competition but upon hearing him speak week upon week, his appointment as captain could scarcely be considered a masterstroke by 20s head coach Richie Murphy: he was a shoo-in.

Murphy’s genius, and that of his support staff, can be broken into tangibles and intangibles. Ireland won all five of their games, four of them with try-scoring bonus points, and scored 29 tries en route to their slam — 11 more than their standout predecessors of 2019. They conceded just nine, and 65 points in total, compared to 2019′s 12 tries and 92 points. That’s not to suggest that the Class of 2022 are a better team; it’s merely an illustration of the stamp that Murphy, forwards coach Jimmy Duffy, defence coach Willie Faloon and backs coach Mark Sexton have been able to put on their side over the last few months.

Perhaps even more impressive, though, are the intangibles with which Murphy and his coaches were helped by the likes of team manager Tom Kavanagh and kitman Lar Hogan. After all, this was a group of players who had been robbed of opportunities to play together at earlier age grades due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Most of the players from different provinces didn’t really know each other before camp. But somehow, they were sewn together so successfully that, for the rest of their respective lives, they will always share that night in Cork when they lifted the U20 Six Nations trophy and paraded around the pitch, unbeaten, together. And the night out afterwards, obviously.

richie-murphy-celebrates-after-the-game-with-lar-hogan Ben Brady / INPHO Ireland head coach Richie Murphy and kitman Lar Hogan. Ben Brady / INPHO / INPHO

“It’s amazing — an amazing feeling,” said head coach Murphy. “It’s amazing the journey that these lads have been on over the last couple of months.

“They’re a very close-knit bunch and I think it really galvanised them, going to France and winning over there. They knew, then, what was ahead of them.

They bonded really tightly. It’s amazing to see the provincial barriers broken down. Even when I walked in today for breakfast, all the lads sitting at different tables, great bit of banter going on.

“And they’ll have a fun night tonight!

Once we got together, our manager Tom came up with a couple of really good ideas — putting pool tables in, putting ping-pong tables in. Some of the competition… I was actually worried about lads getting fatigued from the ping pong rather than from the rugby. But they really bonded well, there’s been great craic in the team room, and they deserve a night like this.

the-ireland-team-celebrate-as-2022-under-20-six-nations-champions Ben Brady / INPHO Ireland celebrate their success. Ben Brady / INPHO / INPHO

“I suppose at the start of the Six Nations”, Murphy added, “we were working really hard just to make sure we got off to a good start and it’s amazing how that has sort of fed into this over the last five games.

“We’re trying to play fast, we’re trying to play to space, and the guys are well able to carry as well. So, it’s a combination of that which I think has made us quite difficult to defend against and [allowed us to score] those tries.

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“It’s funny, today there were some brilliant tries but there were some things that we left behind us, but we’ll worry about that another day.”

As for whether there even will be another day with this same group, Murphy says Ireland are “hoping for some sort of a competition” in the summer in lieu of the World Rugby Under 20 Championship, which has been cancelled for the third year running due to the pandemic.

“We would have loved to have had a World Cup but it is what it is,” Murphy said. “We’ll enjoy this and we’ll look forward to the summer another day!”

A new episode of The Front Row, in partnership with Guinness, is out now. After Ireland’s Triple Crown win, Murray Kinsella gives us the rundown on his team of the tournament. Ireland international Sene Naoupu also joins the panel to chat about her career and look ahead to the start of the Women’s Six Nations. Click here to subscribe or listen below:

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