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Morgan Treacy/INPHO Hernan celebrates his second try against Wales.
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Ireland U20 flanker Hernan ready to mix it with the big boys in Cork camp
The open training sessions rarely pass without a marker being laid on one side or the other.

TWO WINS, TEN points and a host of young talent making treading the boards on a big stage for the first time. 

February has been another excellent period for the Ireland U20 project. Following on from last year’s Grand Slam – and an U20 World Cup with far better performances than the eighth-place finish suggests – was always going to be a daunting task, but there Noel McNamara’s side stand, undaunted as they begin preparations anew with a trip to face England as their overriding focus.

Before they pack the bags for Franklin’s Gardens, however, the age grade side will this morning be bracing themselves for a step up in training tempo as they match up against the seniors.

Andy Farrell’s men gathered in Cork IT last night for training camp and most of those involved will have recent experiences of some testing tussles when the young bucks come to challenge the incumbent alphas. Others were the bucks themselves.

“I’ve heard a few stories over the last few years,” says tenacious U20 openside Mark Hernan with a glint in his eye as he looks ahead to training with the big boys.

“We’re just trying to take as much out of it as we can. And it might be a cohesive (thing, where) if one lad gets in a bit of a scuffle, that we’re all in. We’re not really thinking about that stuff, it’s just what we can take out of it. Obviously, Andy Farrell is an incredible coach so it’s just learning from him and the players.

“I’m looking forward to seeing how a few of those lads tick and what we can learn from them. Because obviously they’re one of the best teams in the world and best players in the world.

It will be good to see what they’re like in day to day training and try to pick up habits that they lay down.

“Obviously, that is at the back of your head, that you’re looking to try to get there, but it could be a long way away so you’re just trying to pick up from the best in the world, really.”

mark-hernan-lifts-the-trophy Oisin Keniry / INPHO Oisin Keniry / INPHO / INPHO

Cohesion and unity are bywords in the 20s group, the value of the intangible heightened by the relatively brief window the players have to work with one another. Hernan, who was captain of St Michael’s as they claimed the Leinster Schools Senior Cup last year, feels they are still reaping the benefit of time spent in pre-tournament camp in Fota Island.

“There was a huge sense of collectiveness and cohesion building. It’s good. The more you play, the more you understand what different players are like, what they like playing and it’s just being able to adapt to different circumstances as well.”

The openside played a big part in ensuring Ireland didn’t have much adapting to do in the win over Wales. There was barely a minute on the clock when he broke beyond a five metre ruck and charged down Wales scrum-half Dafydd Buckland, grounding the try himself with 77 seconds gone.

The flanker planted down a second before the interval too, book-ending the first half by rounding off a powerful maul to seal the bonus point for his side.

As Hernan continues on extolling the examples of cohesion in the side, through changing partnerships and relationships with lads from very different backgrounds, he brings himself to the next logical step.

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“Looking forward to the England game in two weeks.”

Hernan insists they have not been looking ahead to their date in Franklin’s Gardens, but it is of course a stand-out fixture. The flanker was still a schoolboy when McNamara’s side went up against their near and dear neighbours in an enthralling trilogy last year, winning two and losing in the World Cup knockout round to an 80th-minute Tom Willis try.

“Now that we have a two-week block, we can really go to town on our preparation for the England match.

“We won’t be hugely focused on them, there will be a huge emphasis on our game and how we want to play and our preparation.

“But it’s always in the back of your head that that’s one of the biggest games that you get to play in underage. That’s always going to be a big one, but as I said, we’re just looking at ourselves and over the next two weeks, get a good two weeks of preparation and just go hit the ground running.”

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