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Dublin: 11 °C Tuesday 15 October, 2019

Basketball and hurling behind Moloney as flies Athy flag in U20 Six Nations

The flanker has revelled in the intensity of the Championship as Ireland have pushed their way top of the table.

IT WASN’T THE tempo or the physicality that took Martin Moloney aback when he made his international Under 20 and Six Nations debut against the might of England this month.

It was the noise.

Martin Moloney celebrates at the final whistle Moloney celebrates the win over England. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

The Championship curtain-raiser in Cork was watched by 5,764 people intent on making themselves heard.

Most of Moloney’s team-mates during that enthralling win would have been equally spurred by the aural assault, but many had the benefit of gradual steps up to the decibel levels set in Musgrave Park thanks to the raucous onlookers at junior and senior Schools Cup matches who provide a unique sort of peer pressure on top of the constant noise that drowns out on-field communication.

“I went to school in Knockbeg College, so there was no rugby there,” Moloney explains to the The42 shortly after wolfing down a deserved lunch following a high-tempo training session against Joe Schmidt’s side.

As the nation’s favourite Kiwi ran the session and barked orders at both sides, Moloney must have felt a long way removed from his early days in rugby. Then he was an Athy RFC fullback quickly learning that strength was more his defining trait than speed. On Friday, he didn’t shirk as he went toe-to-toe with Grand Slam-winners and Lions.

Now studying in Leinster-adjacent UCD, he switched to Old Belvedere before the season began, but he remains firmly rooted through his school and Athy, where he took up the oval ball at an early age. His father hurled for Kildare and was a keen cross-country runner. And though he is still just 18, Moloney looks back on a variety of sporting experience.

“I played midfield or centre back, usually. I was never really a scoring man so I wasn’t in the forwards as much,” he says of his time playing both hurling and football with St Laurence’s GAA club.

When the chance to step up his pursuit of rugby with Leinster Youths came along he continued to play football due to the crossover of skills between the two sports, though the small ball had to fall by the wayside.

Moloney’s eyes light up a little further when he discusses his basketball exploits. Before he developed into the 100kg, 6′ 2″ blindside flanker tearing through the U20 Six Nations, he revelled playing under the rim into double overtime for Knockbeg College on the Carlow-Laois border.

“That was really enjoyable because we’d be playing schools the same level as us. We’d get brilliant games, we had a few that went to extra extra time. You never get that in rugby. They were really close games.

Martin Moloney On the run: Moloney heads for contact against England. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“It’s completely different. It’s really tough on fitness. It’s only a small court, but you don’t realise how much fitness you need, you’re doing going from end to end all the time and there were very few breaks worth talking about.

“You’re constantly going. You’re either under the backboard or running from end to the other.”

‘Constantly going’ would have fitted the open what he experienced in Friday’s open training session too as the younger crop were put through extended periods on the field while the pros had shorter, sharper windows to impress.

In a sun-kissed Aviva Stadium, it was Moloney’s first experience of going head-to-head with the senior international side, yet he never look out of place as he carried intentfully in attacking patterns and went after rucks in a session that was just a little off full-contact.

Ideal preparation for Italy next week, says the Athy man.

“It was as close to a game as we can get. The noise coming from supporters, they’re there for the senior team, but it prepares us very well for what will come in the next few weeks. From the physicality, even though it was non-contact, to the support around the stadium.”

The first three minutes it took a lot of adaptation, but in the middle of it we actually put on a lot of pressure. The last maybe two or three minutes they put us under a lot of pressure and our defence really had to stand up and front up.”

“It was a brilliant experience, because they’re obviously a good bit bigger than us. And the Italians will probably be a bit bigger than us as well.”

Moloney appears to thrive the more intense a challenge gets. And this crop of U20s have already made something of a trademark of punching above their weight.

On that stirring opening night, England were expected to click the steamroll their way into gear and begin another Championship charge, but there is a level of intent and accuracy to the way this Ireland pack go about their business.

Moloney’s back row partners John Hodnett and Scott Penny tend to come up with more eye-catching carries, but the Athy man has delivered consistently excellent power in close contact to bring a serious hard edge to this team that has made all the difference.

“The contact area was something we were really focused on,” Moloney says looking back on the win over England.

“In the two weeks before, we knew they’d believe they would win that contact area no problem. So we tried to use that to our advantage, maybe surprise them and shock them. A few times they were surprised and we got on the right side of the ball.”

He names Peter O’Mahony as a major influence on his rugby and it shows in so many more ways than the 6 on his back.

Martin Moloney The Athy man in training with Ireland U20 last month. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Though they have two wins from two in the Six Nations and top the table with nine points on the board to keep them four ahead of the chasing pack, this U20 crop are far from satisfied with how they have performed so far.

Head coach Noel McNamara said after the win over England that he was not surprised by the work his charges had delivered, and after the hard-fought 24-5 win over Scotland, he admitted:

“Frustration is the word which keeps coming back to mind,” said the Clare man.

“We got frustrated and our discipline got the better of us. When we got the ball, we were just a little bit panicky with it, trying to push things that didn’t need to be pushed – trying to score in that one phase when we needed to build some pressure.”

The squad feels there is much more to come.

“We’re absolutely delighted with where we are,” says Moloney with caveats to come, “we’ve really enjoyed both games, we’ve really learned a lot. There’s just a few things in both games that we feel we can really take to another level.

“What we’ve worked on in training hasn’t reflected in the games. We just want to turn the screw and get it right for the Italy and hopefully improve each and every one of those.”

“Similar to team performances, from my perspective there’s one or two things that I really need to nail down.”

For now, nothing beyond Italy will being targetted.

“Looking at their last three games Ireland and Italy have played at U20, it’s been one-score games. We’re expecting a really close encounter.

“We spoke this morning and one of our aims is to prepare for a real physical encounter.

“And when we get an opportunity to play, we play.”

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About the author:

Sean Farrell

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