Proud day for Sligo rugby as Ireland U20s take on Wales in Donnybrook

Conan O’Donnell, Cillian Gallagher and Stephen Kerins are part of the 23.

IT’S A PROUD day for Sligo rugby.

As the latest crop of Ireland’s best U20 players begin their Six Nations campaign, three of the Connacht town’s young stars will feature on the pitch in Donnybrook.

Conan O'Donnell O'Donnell is one of three Sligo men involved this evening. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Tighthead prop Conan O’Donnell and flanker Cillian Gallagher are in Nigel Carolan’s starting team to face Wales [KO 7.35pm], while scrum-half Stephen Kerins is poised to make his debut at this level from the bench.

All three youngsters have come through the age grades at Sligo RFC and Summerhill College and it’s likely that they will feel pride to notice familiar faces among the Donnybrook crowd this evening.

This achievement is the latest in a growing line of them for Sligo rugby. There has been strong representation for the club in Connacht’s underage teams in recent years, while Cathal Sheridan and Sean Henry progressed into professional rugby after formative years with Sligo.

O’Donnell already has eight senior caps for Pat Lam’s Connacht and says he has learned a huge amount about the “little details” required at that level from the former Samoa international.

The 19-year-old played for the Ireland Schools side during his time at Summerhill, but also managed to continue to represent Sligo RFC all the way up.

It’s a different path to everyone else who was playing on schools teams,” says the softly-spoken tighthead. “No one really knew where Summerhill was but now there’s three of us in the squad.”

“I suppose Sligo and Summerhill would have worked a lot together. Ross Mannion, he would have worked a lot with both. He’s the senior coach with Sligo now and he would have coached us from Junior Cup all the way up. The Sligo coaches are very helpful and I’ve learned loads from them.”

O’Donnell played for the Ireland U20s last year too, and says he has been talking to Kerins and Gallagher about what is involved, letting them “know what to expect and giving them a bit of an indication so that they don’t get too lost!”

After a bright start last year, the Ireland U20s finished their campaign in fifth position as they struggled against bigger packs at set-piece time.

Cillian Gallagher Cillian Gallagher, right, starts for Ireland. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

O’Donnell has used that as a learning experience, but the fact that he is one of only three players returning from last season for this game – all of them in the front row – means there is a fresh energy around the squad.

“It was very up and down,” says O’Donnell of last season. “Some days we delivered and others we didn’t. Maybe some people were switched off, I don’t know. I suppose it was disappointing but hopefully we can do better this year and win something.”

With Gallagher and a host of other powerful units around him, O’Donnell is hopeful Ireland’s pack can be more “dominant” in the upcoming campaign, although a very experienced Welsh forward unit will provide a stern test for them this evening.

While Ireland will need to take that challenge on up front, O’Donnell feels that head coach Carolan’s game plan can see the home side running free too.

It’s a lot more expansive,” says the Connacht man of Carolan’s style. “We play heads up rugby and we just judge it on the day whereas other teams are really dependent on their structures, which means it’s hard for them to make breaks.”

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Fortunately, former days in Sligo have O’Donnell and co. in good shape for this approach.

“I played a lot with Sligo and a lot of that would have been unstructured rugby. I love it, to be honest with you.”

Ireland U20:

15. Jack Power (UCD / Leinster)*
14. Matthew Byrne (Terenure / Leinster)*
13. Shane Daly (Cork Con / Munster)*
12. Jimmy O’Brien (UCD / Leinster)*
11. Hugo Keenan (UCD / Leinster)*
10. Johnny McPhillips (QUB / Ulster)*
9. John Poland (Cork Con / Munster)*

1. Andrew Porter (UCD / Leinster)
2. Adam McBurney (Ballymena / Ulster)
3. Conan O’Donnell (Sligo / Connacht)
4. Peter Claffey (Galwegians / Connacht)*
5. James Ryan (Lansdowne / Leinster)* Captain
6. Cillian Gallagher (Sligo / Connacht)*
7. Will Connors (UCD / Leinster)*
8. Max Deegan (Lansdowne / Leinster)*


16. Shane Fenton (Young Munster / Munster)*
17. James Bollard (Dublin University / Leinster)*
18. Conor Kenny (Buccaneers / Connacht)*
19. Sean O’Connor (Cashel / Munster)*
20. Kelvin Brown (Shannon / Munster)*
21. Stephen Kerins (Sligo / Connacht)*
22. Brett Connon (Newcastle Falcons)*
23. Conor O’Brien (Clontarf / Leinster)*

* denotes that player is uncapped at this level 

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Murray Kinsella

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