Friday 3 February 2023 Dublin: 10°C
# long way south
Early starts, dark arts and McNamara's long winter: Ireland U20s ready for England
Victory over England was the first giant step towards the U20 Grand Slam, but momentum will have to be built all over again.

IT WON’T EXACTLY be dank, with the forecast promising 21C and breezy, but Noel McNamara brings out a wry smile when posed a query about what an Argentinian winter will look like.

The Grand Slam-winning Ireland U20 boss can’t shake the feeling that he’s missing out on summer with all the hemisphere hopping.

For a fast-rising coach, striking a regular seasonal rhythm isn’t always high up the list of necessities. And after presiding over a punishing U20 World Cup campaign in France last June he took up a chance to hone his talents with North Harbour in New Zealand’s Mitre 10 Cup. There was plenty about the Six Nations campaign to warm the cockles, but McNamara surely felt a southerly chill as he took an injury-struck squad to South America this week.

Noel McNamara on a three-month coaching placement with North Harbour Photosport / Anthony Au-Yeung/INPHO McNamara in North Harbour colours last year. Photosport / Anthony Au-Yeung/INPHO / Anthony Au-Yeung/INPHO

“I went from winter in Ireland, to winter in New Zealand to winter in Ireland and, now winter in Argentina,” jokes the Clare man.

“It’s four in a row. I’m definitely going to get some Vitamin D tablets before I travel out.”

Whatever the weather, McNamara’s squad have continually displayed an ability to roll with punches and adjust to any challenge posed to them. 

“You prepare as best as you can,” says McNamara, “I’m really clear in my own mind and the players are clear that high performance equals people’s ability to be adaptable. 

“There are going to be challenges; the kick-off times, the travel, the different surface, the different refereeing interpretations and so on. It is about our ability to get the best out of ourselves, our ability to be adaptable which will be the key.”

During the Six Nations success they out-shone world champions France because they cranked the tempo up again and again while matching Les Bleus  at ferocious breakdowns. Against England, they twice reeled in a double-digit deficits by pitting their pack into a battle they should not have won on paper.

One set of scrums on that pivotal opening night stood out for powerful Connacht hooker Dylan-Tierney Martin. 65 minutes in, the screw was tightening as the white pack marched forward.

“We were down at the far corner playing back up towards the Dolphin end and England kicked to the corner, mauled and took it down and they got a penalty from that,” says Tierney-Martin.

“They scrummed from there, twice, and our loosehead (Michael Milne) got a yellow card and Wych (Josh Wycherley) came back on.”

Martin Moloney was sacrificed for Wycherley’s return and down to seven forwards, it seemed inevitable that England would bully their way from 28-27 down to at least a four-point lead. But Ireland’s front row displayed an invaluable streak of nous.

Dylan Tierney-Martin Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Tierney-Martin at Ireland's squad announcement in PWC this month. Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

“In fairness to England, they were getting a bit of a shove on us so Wych turned to me and said: ‘these boys are really fired up for this.’ I suppose we used the dark arts of the scrum. We let the shove come on and they shot the jump and we got the free kick and cleared our lines.

“Looking around there was such a sense of relief with everyone because were only one or two points ahead at that stage and it was a massive turning point for them.

“You could feel their heads drop and from that point on we felt like nothing was going to stop us.”

Opening day at the World Rugby U20 Championship and Ireland will have to build that momentum all over again. But while the absence of five key men is an undoubted blow, Tierney-Martin for one is chomping at the bit to get back into competitive action after feeling the force of the IRFU’s joined-up thinking.

After an intense Six Nations campaign, Tierney-Martin was held back from throwing himself back in to club action.

“Corinthians were battling relegation in 2B and there were times where you would feel like getting in and doing a job to help out the lads.

But it was done for my benefit so I had to understand that and take it on the chin. Thankfully the Corinthians lads went up to Belfast on the last day and won to stay up.” 

“It was more loading. In my case, I had played the five games in the Six Nations so it was just about trying to keep the game load down and just get back into full fitness again.

“Because those five games so close together you lose a lot of muscle mass and stuff like that. So it’s just about getting back to that point.”

Back to a place where he and his team-mates are ready to adapt. Be it for 10.30am kick-offs – which McNamara believes they should be used to from their schools days – four-day turnarounds or the variety and strength set before them from England and Australia.

“One of the things we’ve really done throughout the course of this,” adds McNamara, “is place a large focus on ourselves. The reality is we look at what we can control.

Noel McNamara before the game Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

“We look at what we can influence and we try and leave the rest for someone else to worry about.” 

“This is a really exciting group to be part of and we felt that, when we came back together, we spoke to the leadership group and then the rest of the squad.

And one of the things that kept coming back was the belief that they got over the course of the last few months.

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“That underpins any level of performance, so it is very important.

“It’s equally important to move on from it after taking that belief and the learnings from it. The group have done that well and we are excited.

“One of the things with a global calendar is that the opportunity to tour isn’t there that much anymore. And the opportunity to tour the southern hemisphere even less. There are guys who will go through a full professional career and they might get just one opportunity to tour the southern hemisphere.”

Plenty in this group have a bright pro future ahead, yet with England afoot there is no danger of them losing sight of the here and now.

Ireland’s World Rugby U20 Championship Pool fixtures (Irish kick-off times)

Tuesday, 4 June: England v Ireland, 19.30

Sunday 8 June: Australia v Ireland, 14.30

Wednesday 12 June: Italy v Ireland, 14.30

Gavan Casey is joined by Murray Kinsella and Sean Farrell for a review of the 2018/19 season, and cast an eye forward to next year and the Rugby World Cup in Japan.:

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