Ryan Byrne/INPHO

McNamara driving zero-talent traits to leave 'no ceiling' on latest Ireland U20 crop

Only seven players remain from last year’s crop, but hard work will underpin their ‘defence’ of the Six Nations title.

THE NATURE OF the beast means that coming in as Six Nations champions never quite means defending your title.

For an Ireland U20 squad with 30 new faces out of 37, it will very much be a case of starting from scratch when they begin the Championship at home to Scotland in Cork on 31 January.

Head coach Noel McNamara unveiled his 2020 group yesterday at the team’s base in Fota Island. There, through camps over the winter, one of the main messages he has instilled in the group is the importance of work-rate. After all, McNamara presided over Ireland’s first U20 Grand Slam since 2007. Plenty of teams loaded with talent came and went empty-handed in the intervening 12 years.

“That is something that they have spoken about, that they have set their stall out that they want to be winning those zero-talent moments,” says McNamara.

“Winning the things that don’t require any talent, whether that be (through) their attitude, whether that be their body language, whether that be their work ethic.

“And that will be reflected in the games hopefully as well. But that is certainly something that has struck me about the group.”

Attitude, endeavour and the will to create cohesion in the squad all come under the important ‘zero-talent’ umbrella for McNamara. A bedrock of last year’s success was the strength of the relationships built in the squad during their pre-Six Nations camps in Cork and that intangible glue is being reached for once more.

“Creating connections, creating cohesion, it takes investment of energy and time…

“We’re certainly keen to do that, it won’t happen just here, it will hopefully be strengthened here, if we liken it to a little thread by the end of June, we’d hope that would be a really strong cord, really strong rope.”

When all the threads are pulled together, Ireland will be keen on solidifying the sense of a fortress in Musgrave Park, the stage for thrilling wins over England and France last term. The opposition won’t bring quite the same star power this year, but three fixtures represents a chance to deepen the connection between this team and the venue newly-adopted last year.

“It was a fantastic home for us last year,” said the Clare man.

“The reality is we played as many games last year in CRAI Rugby Club in Santa Fe as we played in Cork, it was two in both. It was very clear and very evident what it meant for us to play (in Cork) and I have absolutely no doubt that it will be exactly the same this year.”

Similar surroundings, yet wholesale change in the playing group means that there will not necessarily be continuity in the style of play. However, McNamara and assistants Kieran Campbell and Colm Tucker will demand a high tempo as Ireland will need to punch above their weight to some extent.

“Because that is a reality as well. No matter how big we are there is always going to be teams that are a little bit bigger than us. That is okay we will embrace that as well.”

oran-mcnulty-thomas-ahern-david-mccann-and-thomas-clarkson Oran McNulty, Thomas Ahern, David McCann and Thomas Clarkson in Cork yesterday. Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

McNamara will miss the quality of flyer Aaron Sexton, Munster hooker Scott Buckley and flanker Ciaran Booth – who is still on the recovery trail after the horror injury suffered at last summer’s World Cup. However, with Ulster David McCann leading the squad the head coach is confident of extracting the maximum potential from another crop.

“I have an inherent confidence in young people anyway. But certainly the one thing that has struck me about this group and from working with this group is any time we have got together we have got better.

“That is really all you can ask. The hallmark of any good team is continuous improvement and that is the challenge for us, to continue to improve. They have done that from the first time we got together in November.

“The challenge for us is we set our stall out on Friday week and to continue to improve for the rest of the season from that point.”

“It is very much a case of a new year and there are a couple of guys back who will be looking to drive on standards. There are quite a few guys who were in school this time last year and are really keen to make a mark for themselves as well. That is the really exciting thing about this age group for me.

“There is no ceiling. It is absolutely up to them. And this group are really eager to leave their mark and their little imprint on Irish rugby.”

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