Ben Brady/INPHO
Grand Ambitions

One day and one win away from a grand slam - Ireland's U20s are steering clear of the hype

Richie Murphy’s young team have been magnificent in this year’s competition but the job is not yet finished.

THE DAY IT ALL started, way back in November when a group of 50 hopefuls were brought into camp, Ireland U20 coach Richie Murphy remembers a training session when nothing went right.

Across a 15-minute period, there were 25 handling errors. “I was ready to tear my hair out,” recalled Murphy yesterday. Certainly it didn’t look like he had a team ready to bid for a grand slam. Yet here they are, four months and four wins later, standing on the cusp of the greatest day of their young lives.

Should Ireland defeat the Scots tomorrow in Musgrave Park (kick-off 5pm, RTE Sport) then a second grand slam in four years will be theirs. Is that likely to happen? Well, Scotland have lost four from four and are bottom of the table. So you decide.

“We have obviously a lot of respect for our opposition and we will look at their threats closely,” said Murphy, “but our theme throughout the competition has been to make this about us. We have challenged the lads to be the best they can be.”

So far it has worked. A pre-tournament defeat to Italy didn’t augur well but that loss also requires context. Italy, believe it or not, are quite good at underage level, following up that Ireland win with one over England in the tournament proper. Ireland, additionally, were struck down by Covid.

“It is amazing really how far they have come in this window; to think it is the same team or the nucleus of the same team playing now that played that day is amazing,” says Murphy.

richie-murphy-speaks-to-the-media-before-the-game Richie Murphy reacts to last week's win. Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

“In fairness to the guys we stuck on task really well and the boys have really bought into our coaching team.”

It’s easy to see how. For years Murphy, the 20s head coach, was one of those operators you heard more about than you saw. When Ireland were winning a grand slam in 2018, and championships in 2014 and 2015, he was always in the background, like Zelig. Prior to that, he also won Pro12 titles with Leinster and a Heineken Cup, serving Joe Schmidt in an understated way.

Yet there comes a time when any aspiring coach has to move out of the shadows, to trust in his own instincts and borrow the best traits of the men he has served and integrate them into a philosophy of his own.

Last year was when that happened and while that Ireland team didn’t win either a championship or grand slam, they still impressed. Nathan Doak was on that side, Alex Kendellen captained it. The star was the team, though. They played imaginatively without ever sacrificing a reliance on old-fashioned hard-work. This side is the exact same.

The big difference is the personnel. At this age-range you get massive turnovers in playing staff. But if the philosophy remains the same, then success can follow. And it has.

“I definitely think over the past couple of months that all my experiences from being involved in the senior team have helped,” says Murphy.

johnny-sexton Murphy worked closely with Sexton. Tommy Dickson / INPHO Tommy Dickson / INPHO / INPHO

“I have been lucky to have been in some really good coaching groups and I have worked with some really good teams and all those experiences have had an influence on me and have shaped me in relation to how we have shaped the theme of the week for these boys.”

The names to look out for tomorrow have the potential to become household ones. Aitzol King finished off two tries superbly against England; scrum-half Matt Devine sets a tempo that opposing teams hate – he’s a definite star in the making.

Then there is Mark Morrissey, whose try on the opening day against Wales, was picked out as a tournament highlight by Murphy. “There were loads of continuity and loads of passes into space,” he said.

“They are things we have really worked on. From an individual point of view, I think guys have really stepped up. There are some guys that have gone further than we probably would have thought, like someone like Conor O’Tighearnaigh coming in as a young second-row. He probably got into the group on the back of other players being injured; then he went from the first camp to the second camp to the third camp and all of a sudden he is in the team. As an 18-year-old second row he has played almost every minute of a campaign that has been really, really good.”

Better than good has been captain, Reuben Crothers, who has a 100 per cent tackle completion rate. The Ulsterman looks sensational.

“I think he has been incredible; when this thing (programme) was starting, we put him in as captain and he has sort of grown into that role really well. The first couple of weeks, he was quiet, and was definitely one of those captains who kind of leads by example but I think he has grown into it massively and is a real spiritual leader within that team.

“So I am really happy with Reuben; he is exactly what it says on the tin. He delivers hard work, is honest, and technically a really good rugby player as well.”

It all adds up to a fairly effective unit. The one thing Crothers hasn’t practiced is lifting trophies but with a championship and a Triple Crown on offer tomorrow, he’s about to enjoy a new discovery.

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