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Dublin: 11°C Friday 16 April 2021

McNamara hails inner calm and outward character of champion U20s with focus trained on Grand Slam

‘There are very few people in the history of Irish rugby who have managed to win a Grand Slam.’

Sean Farrell reports from Musgrave Park

NOEL MCNAMARA, NORMALLY spotted in his IRFU training apparel and woolly hat to deal the chilly nights his team plays in, walks in to the media room looking fresh, suited and booted.

He’s a champion with a game to spare.

Noel McNamara speaks to his team Ireland head coach Noel McNamara. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

He makes sure to point out that we’re not at the end of the tournament yet, but it’s well worth considering the beginning of the year as he has made every effort to ensure the crop of players under his watch had no concept of a ceiling on their ability.

Ireland were crowned U20 Six Nations champions last night after shading a seven-try thriller against France. As the updates flowed in from Edinburgh, the knife-edge battle unfolding in Cork became increasingly delicately-poised.

Wales, embattled with their regions in flux, were getting hosed by Scotland so Ireland v France was about to turn into the hour of crowning glory, or a litany of ‘what-ifs’ for the hosts.

Ireland lead 10-0, trailed 10-14 and it seemed as though the reigning world champions were moving through the gears and winding up for a knock-out punch or two.

Yet even without a first-choice 10 and 12, and with their direct replacements winning their first starts at this level, Ireland excelled. And, showing dogged determination any veteran would be proud of, never lost sight of the task at hand.

“There’s a lot of belief in the group in how they play and what they’re doing. A consequence of having been there before, experience is amazing,” says the proud head coach.

“At half-time it was a very calm place. They knew they’d given them a few opportunities, but they knew if they stuck to their flow… once we did I thought we caused them an awful lot of problems.”

Louis Carbonel plays on without a jersey Carbonel plays by the whistle, not by his shirt. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

Before Ireland got a chance to show their attacking rhythm, they had to contend with France’s.

Jordan Joseph was a constant danger, Arthur Vincent set the back-line alight at times and Louis Carbonel’s two tries were by no means the most impressive parts of his game.

The first 40 minutes featured some exciting breakaways from Ireland, but for the most part it was another example of how deep they are willing to dig in defence.

“When you’re playing against really good players,” says Clare native McNamara, “you’ve got to defend with courage. And they did. They defended with courage time and time again, people put their body on the line.

“Even that try at the end,” he says of the efforts to scramble and prevent even consolation bonus points for Les Bleus, “they certainly scrapped and fought for everything.”

Even with a medal due his way, McNamara wasn’t about to sweep away areas for improvement he wants to see in his side before they go to Colwyn Bay in search of a Grand Slam next Friday

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Ben Healy kicks a conversion Ben Healy, a late replacement for Harry Byrne at 10, kicked 16 points in the win. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“I think there were aspects of our performance tonight that were really excellent. There were aspects that were pretty frustrating. Not dissimilar to the English performance, we were architects of our own downfall a bit,” he says, pointing to poor exits ahead of the visitors’ first-half tries.

“The lads are under no illusions that was a complete performance by any stretch of the imagination. They’ve shown an awful lot of character. And they’ve done that through the course of the Championship, when they’ve been asked tough questions, they’ve managed to come up with solutions.

“They managed to do it again tonight. It was a strange game:  you score, we score, you score, we score… we did get a bit of separation and ultimately that was the difference.”

Charlie Ryan celebrates at the full time whistle Captain Charlie Ryan leads the celebrations at full-time. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

That’s the thing about winning titles, however. The moments that could have gone either way vanish from memory. And turning a title to a Grand Slam tends to overlay a sense of destiny over every rewatch.

When Ireland U20s last lifted a trophy back in 2010 – with Rhys Ruddock, John Cooney, Tiernan O’Halloran, Andrew Conway, Simon Zebo and Nevin Spence at the heart of the side – they did so after losing away to France. McNamara’s message to his players and the public post-match was clear. Grand Slams don’t come around often, grab it.

“It’s not just Irish teams. That French team last year was a brilliant team. They didn’t win the Grand Slam, though they won the Championship. 

“It’s a rare opportunity and if you can’t relish that you’re in the wrong business.

We haven’t the best record in Colwyn Bay. It’s a difficult place to go and get a result. That’s a great challenge. This group is motivated by challenge. They’re not going to be diminished by any of those things.”

“I think it says a little bit about the mentality of the group. The reality is they recognise the opportunity. There are very few people in the history of Irish rugby who have managed to win a Grand Slam.

“So it’s a fantastic opportunity they have next week to go and do that, achieve something really special as a group and there’ll be plenty of time afterwards to reflect on the Six Nations.”

Andy Dunne joins Murray Kinsella and Ryan Bailey to discuss Joe Schmidt’s undroppables and how France might attack Ireland’s predictability in The42 Rugby Weekly.

Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

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Sean Farrell

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