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Ireland face tough task in U20s Summer Series as Covid and injuries derail preparations

Head coach Richie Murphy is missing a number of key players as his squad prepare for a challenging tournament in Italy.

Reuben Crothers and Conor O'Tighearnaigh.
Reuben Crothers and Conor O'Tighearnaigh.
Image: Ben Brady/INPHO

IN ONLY TAKES a couple of minutes of a Friday morning Zoom call with Ireland U20s head coach Richie Murphy to learn that his squad’s preparations for the upcoming Summer Series tournament has been far from ideal.

The first indication was a quick scan of his 31-man squad, and the absence of a number of players who helped Ireland land an unlikely Grand Slam success earlier this year – a lengthy injury list forcing Murphy to dip deep into his reserves, and promote a couple of promising U19s players.

Then you had further disruption during the recent spate of training camps at the IRFU’s performance centre.

“I ended up picking up Covid and missed a week’s camp,” Murphy explains.

“Not only that, then Mark (Sexton, attack and backs coach) and Willie (Falloon, defence coach) picked it up as well and they missed the following week. So we’ve been a little bit hampered in relation to preparation, but in fairness, the guys have adapted well to that and we’ve kept the show on the road.”

It presented an early challenge for the coaching group as they looked to get the squad up to speed while being unable to get everybody into the same room.

“It was interesting. Obviously for conversations, meetings I was dropping in on Zoom,” Murphy explains.

And a lot of the information we were preparing in voice-over format for meetings and stuff like that, and then getting it back into the guys with other coaches in the room, so that if there was stuff that needed to be explained, we were able to do that. So we adapted pretty well. The players, I’m sure they would have noticed a difference between us all being there and not, but we tried to make that as seamless as possible.”

Seamless isn’t a word Murphy used often during the call, with his injury-hit squad now up against it as they prepare to take on France, South Africa and England in Verona, before signing off with a further play-off fixture.  

Munster fullback Patrick Campbell – who could yet follow the group out – Leinster out-half Charlie Tector and impactful Leinster loosehead Jack Boyle are just some of the key men from Ireland’s Grand Slam success who won’t travel to Italy. Of the 31-man playing group, 15 players were not part of the Six Nations squad, but Murphy was keen to try put a positive spin on things – urging his new charges to make the most of the opportunity.

There’s no doubt we’re a little shy on where we’d like to be, but it is what it is, and our job at U20s is about development. It’s a great opportunity for these young lads that they’re prepared the best they can, and what better test than playing France, South Africa and England. It’s a good challenge.

“The turnover of players is probably a little bit too much for us but it is what it is, we just have to get on with it. We will deal with the players we have in camp.

“Obviously we are bringing three centres in Daniel Hawkshaw who started against France (in the Six Nations), we have Fionn Gibbons who started all the games and we have young Dave Dooley who is an U19; he didn’t play in the 19s due to injury. He’s learning fast and he has to. Those are the guys we are going to look at in and around the midfield.

“You are missing Jude (in the centres), you are missing Ben Carson, you are missing Ben Brownlee but not only that, Daniel Squires from UCC and Munster and Darragh French, both of those picked up injuries as well. We are down the depth chart there. It is a great opportunity for an U19 Dave Dooley to step up and stake his claim.

richie-murphy-ahead-of-the-game Ireland U20s head coach Richie Murphy. Source: Ben Brady/INPHO

“On the other side of that (in the forwards), Oisin Michel would have probably wanted more time in the Six Nations than he got, there is an opportunity for him. George Hadden did pretty well with the 19s, again stepping up, it’s a great learning curve for him over the summer and really setting him up for U20s next year.

“Those guys get an opportunity to come in, and the competitive nature of what we try to drive within these guys is that the guys will be held accountable, driving them really hard to get the best out of them.

“We are hoping that that is going to be good enough to be very competitive over there. Obviously there is a big target on our backs going over as Grand Slam champions. That is a tag that some of these young guys are going to have to wear even though they haven’t been involved in that Six Nations.”

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It’s a big ask, but age grade rugby is all about gaining experience. Regardless of how results go in Italy, the hope is that the exposure just helps these young players in their development.

“It is very much a new team,” Murphy adds.

“We’ve five guys back from that (Six Nations) starting XV, probably another maybe five that were in the (matchday) 23 so those guys know the level that’s needed. Some of the younger guys, U19s obviously, it will be very new for those.

“We haven’t started from scratch, the guys have worked really hard over the last few weeks but it’s going to be a tough opener, let’s put it that way, against France and South Africa within a five-day turnaround.” 

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Ciarán Kennedy

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