Grand Slam dream denied but Ireland U20 stars have bright futures
Many of Noel McNamara’s young squad are already making progress with their provinces.

WHILE THE SENIOR men’s national team had just suffered a big setback before the 2020 Six Nations was postponed back in February and March, the Ireland U20s were on an altogether different trajectory after their third win in three games.

Noel McNamara’s team had recorded a thrilling 39-21 victory away to England to take control of their Six Nations, that impressive performance following home wins against Scotland and Wales.

ireland-players-celebrate-after-the-game Billy Stickland / INPHO Some of the Ireland U20s squad celebrate their win over England back in February. Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

There were no guarantees, of course, but the Grand Slam dream was very real as Ireland looked towards a home clash with Italy and a final-weekend visit to France before lockdown kicked in.

But while the senior men’s and women’s teams will have the opportunity to finish out their 2020 Six Nations campaigns in October, the remainder of the U20 championship has been cancelled and there will be no official winner this year.

Six Nations organisers confirmed the decision earlier today and said it was “due to season scheduling constraints,” which is a sign of the times but nonetheless very disappointing for supporters of this talented Ireland U20 crop.

This confirmation comes on top of the World Rugby U20 Championship that was originally scheduled for Italy this summer also having been cancelled. All in all, it’s been a very frustrating year for this U20s group.

The players have been denied potential highlights in their careers so far, while McNamara misses out on a possible second successive Grand Slam with this age-grade team.

That said, the U20s made a major impression in their three Six Nations games that took place. McNamara’s team played with an attacking verve and cohesion that often escapes international sides that have relatively little time together. There was real team spirit in the U20s’ play and no shortage of skill.

In the grander scheme of things, international U20s rugby is just one part of the development pathway and its purpose is to help produce players who can push on into senior professional rugby. 

thomas-ahern Munster Rugby / INPHO Thomas Ahern at Munster senior pre-season training. Munster Rugby / INPHO / INPHO

Obviously, missing out on two Six Nations games and an entire World Championship is far from ideal for their development but we’re already seeing this year’s U20s crop making further progress, several of them currently training with their provinces’ senior squads in pre-season.

Out-half Jack Crowley has been added to Munster’s academy this summer, the Bandon and Cork Con man linking up with his outstanding U20s team-mate Thomas Ahern, who is already into Year 3 in the academy.

6ft 9ins Ahern made a big impact for the U20s, while his fellow Munster academy lock and Waterford man Eoin O’Connor was part of the wider Ireland U20s squad this year but suffered a badly-timed injury and didn’t get a chance to feature.

Meanwhile, Leinster’s latest academy intake is made up of seven of this year’s Ireland U20s crop in hooker John McKee, lock Joe McCarthy, back rows Alex Soroka and Sean O’Brien, and back three players Andrew Smith, Max O’Reilly, and Niall Comerford. 

Left wing Smith scored two tries in his three starts in the Six Nations, while O’Brien was impactful in his three starts in the back row.

The rest of the new intake possesses plenty of potential too, while this year’s U20 starting tighthead Tom Clarkson and lock Brian Deeny are now into Year 2 of the Leinster academy programme.

U20 scrum-half Lewis Finlay is among the six new faces who joined Ulster’s academy this summer, while several of his impressive international team-mates were already part of the system in the northern province.

oran-mcnulty-and-jack-crowley James Crombie / INPHO Connacht fullback Oran McNulty and Munster out-half Jack Crowley. James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

Dynamic centre Hayden Hyde, hooker Tom Stewart, offloading wing Ethan McIlroy – who has made his Ulster senior debut – and back three flyer Conor Rankin are now in Year 2, while U20s captain and back row David McCann is into Year 3.

Meanwhile, Connacht have welcomed an Ireland U20s squad member into their academy in the shape of out-half Cathal Forde, while back row Joshua Dunne is now into Year 3 along with U20s starting fullback Oran McNulty – who impressed during the Six Nations.

Interestingly, U20s prop and Tullow RFC product Charlie Ward has joined the Connacht academy after missing out with his native Leinster, while U20s lock/back row and Newbridge College alumnus Cian Prendergast has also done the same.

This kind of movement is certainly something IRFU performance director David Nucifora is keen to see.

With the competition for places in Leinster’s academy so ferocious, there is no reason why quality players who narrowly miss out on making it in shouldn’t have a future in one of the other provinces. 

Powerful Ireland U20s centre Dan Kelly, who was had joined the squad through the IQ Rugby system, signed for Leicester Tigers this summer but one presumes the IRFU’s UK-based branch will be keeping in close contact with him.

andrew-smith-celebrates-his-try-with-tom-stewart James Crombie / INPHO Leinster's Andrew Smith celebrates a try with Ulster hooker Tom Stewart. James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

With the provinces having indicated that they may add further players to their academies early in the new season, others from this year’s Ireland U20s squad will hope to impress as rugby resumes, whether with their clubs in the new Energia Community Series or the inter-provincial A games and 7s tournaments the IRFU has arranged.

The younger of them may have another shot with the Ireland U20s in 2021 but that’s not the case for many of this year’s highly-promising squad.

It’s certainly a shame that McNamara’s young men won’t have their shot at Grand Slam glory and a World Championship in 2020 but many of them have very bright futures nonetheless.

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