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Dublin: 1°C Tuesday 2 March 2021

A visit to Willie Mullins' yard among lessons lapped up by Noel McNamara

The U20 head coach picked up a personal gong this week, but is quick to deflect praise towards a team who could have easily been celebrating under different circumstances this weekend.

Image: James Crombie/INPHO

LAST NIGHT OUGHT to have been a night of crowning glory for Noel McNamara.

Facing France away, in the hotbed of Perpignan, is the furthest thing from a gimme as age grade rugby can give. But since his tenure in charge of Ireland U20 began with a dispiriting drubbing in north Catalunya two years ago, McNamara has managed to assemble two teams who have made challenging the best in the world – and perceptions of intrinsic Irish playing style – look routine.

Who knows how the rugby calendar will look when the dust settled on the Covid-19 outbreak, but there is something quite apt about Ireland U20s’ last outing before the postponements being a rip-roaring, vicious attacking display that yielded a bonus point win away to England.

Just a handful of forwards in that squad, a group whose 100% record through three games leaves them one win away from a Championship and two away from the incredible feat of back-to-back Grand Slams, were involved in the 2019 Slam.

Yet McNamara deflects all praise for his team towards the players and all who surround them.

“To be honest it’s an accolade for a team, a reflection of the work done at medical, S&C and video analysis level,” he says when his latest accolade, the Philips Sports Manager of the Month, was mentioned to him.

The way things are going, he’ll be the incumbent holder of that title for a while more yet.

“We’re a group of 11 people who have prepared this team. And to be honest it extends beyond that. A lot of work that’s done in growth and development of these players happen at provincial level, happen at schools and clubs and everything else.

“The players really are a credit to all the people who have been involved in their journeys.”

McNamara’s own journey is worth re-treading. A Clare man, who quickly corrects inquisitors to say he has no serious rugby-playing experience, is currently Leinster academy director.

“I’m a teacher. Very much an accidental coach, to be honest,” he says with some pride. McNamara went to study PE and Maths in UL. By his final year there he was involved in coaching with Glenstal Abbey school before moving east to teach in Clongowes Wood.

McNamara spent eight years as the Kildare school’s senior rugby coach before earning the nudge up to national schools level in 2012 and to U20 as Nigel Carolan’s replacement in 2017. At 38, McNamara remains a keen student, joking “you can learn from the migrating habits of geese if you want to.” But his favoured subjects relate to sport and performance management.

Like the current top men on the Leinster coaching tree, he has absorbed rugby teachings from a stint in New Zealand, working with North Harbour for three months in 2018.

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noel-mcnamara-on-a-three-month-coaching-placement-with-north-harbour Source: Photosport/Anthony Au-Yeung/INPHO

“I loved the immediacy of it all,” said McNamara. The majority of his coaching experience to that point had been on the stop-start schedule of schools and representative sides. Here was week-on-week planning, preparation and the need to rip it all up and start over.

“It was great to go to what is a passionate rugby country, their coaches and players and the public are pretty passionate about it and getting the opportunity to live that as much as anything else.

“It reaffirmed things definitely, there were things I hadn’t considered: a different way of working as much as anything else. That was beneficial from that perspective.

“And also, a slightly different way of doing things, different mindset, different attitude. It was very enjoyable and challenging in equal measure.”

More recently, the O’Callaghansmills man opted to take in a very different excursion to assess a high performance environment. The home of back-to-back Gold Cup winner Willie Mullins.

“One of the best things I did over the last 12 months was I went to visit Willie Mullins’ yard down in Carlow. I taught Paddy in school, believe it or not. He was a good middle-distance runner.

When you talk about high-performance environment, that’s an outstanding example of how to prepare and train and how you get better.

“You try and learn from other sports, I’d be interested in Gaelic games, soccer I was passionate about always, American sports have been professional a long time and there’s a lot you can learn from those.”

And yet for all those new lessons, or perhaps because of them, McNamara does not feel his approach to coaching has altered at its core since making the switch from schools to the best young would-be professionals.

“I’m not sure an awful lot has changed, to be honest about it. I first started coaching in Glenstal, in Limerick, with the U14s. From there to Clongowes and so on.

noel-mcnamara Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“I love coaching, I’m passionate about it and in terms of what has changed, I’m not sure an awful lot has changed from that respect, in particular. Eddie Jones talked (post-match on Sunday) saying ‘people don’t really love coaching’. I’d certainly disagree with that. I love coaching and that’s probably the size of it really, to be honest.”

And that’s why the halting of the Championship when he was on the verge of winning it again is not the primary concern for McNamara. His medals take the form of each player who makes the leap up to professional level after they make their way away from his watch.

The summer World Rugby U20 Championship was scheduled for Italy, but that will surely be canceled or moved wholesale elsewhere. And if Six Nations matches are re-fixed for September or October then he will face competition from provinces for selection of players who are six months older and better-prepared to step up. All the better for the 18-year-olds in his squad, who may get more opportunities than planned in year one, to tee them up to thrive again in year two.

Under McNamara’s watch, the U20s have made a habit of churning opportunities out of personnel turnover, stringing impressive performances and rapid rates of improvements together.

Just when the fickle nature of momentum might be expected to go against them, McNamara ensures his teams create their own.

About the author:

Sean Farrell

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