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Joe Schmidt touches base with former sidekick to wish Ireland's Under 20s luck

The Irish Under 20 side begin their Six Nations campaign against Scotland today and face five games in 24 days.

Alex Soroka is a star with Ireland U20s.
Alex Soroka is a star with Ireland U20s.
Image: Billy Stickland/INPHO

IN A SEASON that looks like never ending, it seems a little ironic to be talking about a new beginning.

Yet this is where we are, on the cusp of seeing the latest batch of talented youngsters step from the underage conveyor belt and into another Under 20 Six Nations championship.

Ireland open their campaign today against Scotland (kick-off 2pm, live on RTÉ 1) although any fixture involving the Under 20s is always twofold. 

You don’t just want to know the score after 80 minutes; you want an idea of the shape of things five years from now.

History has shown that talent always comes through. Scan back to the 2016 squad at this age grade: James Ryan, Andrew Porter, Will Connors and Shane Daly were all in that one. But so was Hugo Keenan, except the current Ireland full-back had a ‘late bloomer’ rather than ‘definite star’ label attached to his collar. Look at him now.

Looking at each year’s crop is always a fascinating study even if the truth is that we just don’t know who’ll make it. You’d imagine Alex Kendellen, the current Under 20 captain, will. Aside from the ability he also has the attitude. “I remember one game at Under 18 level, he made something like 30 carries that day,” said his team mate, Chris Cosgrave. “He gave it everything, so much so that he was lying on the dressing-room floor afterwards, too exhausted to move.”

Others stand a great chance. There’s backrower, Alex Soroka, who made his Leinster debut earlier this year against Glasgow; Tim Corkery, who featured against Zebre for the reigning Pro14 champions; Kendellen, who made his Munster debut this spring, and Cathal Forde, who is the latest graduate from the Connacht academy.

After turning 20 in April, Forde has earned a second bite at this, having made it into the Under 20 squad for last year’s Six Nations, a tournament cut short because of Covid.

Since then, the hardest thing has been trying to stay active, as rugby largely shut down – save for those operating at senior professional level. Five games for the Connacht Eagles, coupled with a run-out in the Sevens programme, all helped but the best schooling game on run-of-the-mill Tuesdays when Bundee Aki and Jack Carty sat down with a chat with him after Connacht training. “Bundee and Jack really know their stuff and have been great to me,” said Forde. “I’m always looking for fixes for my game and if they spot them, they’ll call them out to me, give me a few tips.”

cathal-forde-and-niall-comerford Cathal Forde in action for Connacht Eagles. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

For his part, Forde is also prepared to offer us a tip, selecting Jamie Osborne, as one of Ireland’s players to watch. “Jamie has a good bit of experience,” said Forde. “Having won senior caps for Leinster, he has brought that experience into us and has really taken charge, bossing the defence. His pace and strength in attack is a massive asset to him. He has been good in training, is a great lad, and has the skillset to play anywhere in the backs.”

For today’s game against Scotland, Osborne is at full-back; Forde at inside centre, James Humphreys at out-half, the position his father and uncle, David and Ian, mastered. “There is a family resemblance but James is very much his own man,” said the Irish Under 20 coach, Richie Murphy, yesterday.

For his part, Murphy has had a busy couple of days responding to all the good wishes that have been sent his way, one message coming from Joe Schmidt, who worked with Murphy for a decade with Ireland and before that Leinster.

“Even though Joe has moved back to New Zealand, he keeps an eye on what is going on,” said Murphy at yesterday’s pre-match press conference. “One of the things I learned from working with Joe over the years is about how you need to be clear with your messages to players, how you need to have a clear gameplan while allowing the guys take some ownership themselves.

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“He is an incredible coach; his attention to detail was like nothing else I’d ever seen before. But like every coach – no matter who you work with – you still have to have your own beliefs. You can’t copy anyone.”

The team Murphy has selected today is an exciting one, granted a license to thrill. “We’re encouraged to play what is front of us,” says Forde, “to not be afraid.”

It’s an attitude to savour. Watch out for Forde in the centre, Kendellen and Soroka in the back row. This isn’t just a match but a trailer for the upcoming decade.

Ireland U20s (v Scotland):

15. Jamie Osborne (Naas CBS/Naas RFC/Leinster)
14. Ben Moxham (Larne High School/Ballymena RFC/Ulster)
13. Shane Jennings (Garbally College/Buccaneers RFC/Connacht)
12. Cathal Forde (Colaiste Iognaid/Corinthians RFC/Connacht)
11. Josh O’Connor (St Peter’s College/UCD RFC/Leinster)
10. James Humphreys (Dean Close School/Queen’s University Belfast RFC/Ulster)
9. Conor McKee (Sullivan Upper School/Queen’s University Belfast RFC/Ulster)
1. Temi Lasisi (CBS Enniscorthy/Lansdowne FC/Leinster)
2. Ronan Loughnane (Cistercian College Roscrea/UCD RFC/Leinster)
3. Sam Illo (Wesley College/Old Wesley RFC/Leinster)
4. Mark Morrissey (Blackrock College/UCD RFC/Leinster)
5. Harry Sheridan (Sullivan Upper School/Dublin University FC/Ulster)
6. Alex Soroka (Belvedere College/Clontarf RFC/Leinster)
7. Oisin McCormack (Garbally College/Buccaneers RFC/Connacht)
8. Alex Kendellen (PBC Cork/UCC RFC/Munster)(Captain)

Replacements:

16. Eoin de Buitléar (Scoil Chuimsitheach Chiáran/An Ghaeltacht/Corinthians RFC/Connacht)

17. Jack Boyle (St Michael’s College/UCD RFC/Leinster)
18. Mark Donnelly (CBC Cork/Garryowen RFC/Munster)
19. Jack Kelleher (PBC Cork/UCC RFC/Munster)
20. Reuben Crothers (Wallace High School/Ballynahinch RFC/Ulster)
21. Will Reilly (CBS Portlaoise/MU Barnhall/Leinster)
22. Tim Corkery (St Kieran’s College, Kilkenny/UCD RFC/Leinster)
23. Chris Cosgrave (St Michael’s College/UCD RFC/Leinster)
24. Donnacha Byrne (Summerhill College/Sligo RFC/Connacht)
25. Ben Carson (Wallace High School/Banbridge RFC/Ulster)
26. Daniel Okeke (Ard Scoil Ris/Shannon RFC/Munster).

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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