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Defence a key focus as Ireland prepare to tackle Italy in U20 Championship opener

Ireland pushed their way into the World Rugby U20 Championship final last year, but disruptions have brought expectations right down for this new crop.

Ireland U20 v Italy U20, Kutaisi, kick-off 12.30pm Irish time (EirSport)


As ever with under 20s rugby, each tournament can draw precious few parallels with the one that preceded it. And for Ireland, the player turnover since last year’s run to the World Rugby U20 Championship final has been exacerbated by injuries to key men like Cillian Gallagher and Johnny McPhillips – relative veterans having played in this tournament last season.

There was a coaching change to deal with since the Six Nations too, Munster’s Peter Malone promoted from assistant  to interim head coach after Nigel Carolan accepted the chance to move into Connacht’s new senior coaching ticket under Kieran Keane.

Peter Malone Source: Achi Gegenava/INPHO

To a regular team, that might be too much disruption to ride out. But this level is all about adapting with the whitewater flow of players in and out of the catchment age range.

There are elements of continuity to the touring party in Kutaisi, however. Taking over Carolan’s responsibility for the back-line is Kieran Campbell, an assistant who will be more than familiar with the players having coached many of them at U19 grade. The Ulster man will be free to impose some elements of his own coaching on the group, but the player-led ethos which was championed by Carolan and Malone will remain in place, so nobody is starting from scratch.

“Obviously Kieran has his own ideas,” said fullback Jack Kelly after the squad announcement on Spencer Dock this month.

“We had a meeting with him a while back and he is open to any suggestions that we have as well. And I suppose we are just going to work it our ourselves with his direction and any input we can give, anything we have learnt from Nigel already, we are going to use.”

Conor Dean Conor Dean, making his U20 debut today, lined out against the national team for a December warm-up fixture. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

There is consistency to be found in personnel too, with only out-half Conor Dean and hooker Diarmuid Barron making their debut from the start against Italy today – though admittedly the latter’s inclusion is the result of some last-minute rug-pulling.

14 of the matchday squad were also involved in the concluding match of the Six Nations, a 14 – 10 defeat that revealed swathes of promise and progress made from the narrow wins over Scotland and Italy earlier in the Championship. Among the units which remain untouched are centres Gavin Mullin and and the solid Ciaran Frawley, imposing locks Fineen Wycherley and Oisin Dowling and props Joey Conway and Charlie Connolly.

Charlie Connolly tackled by Gabriele Venditti Prop Connolly has the handy habit of making big gainlines for his side. Source: Matteo Ciambelli/INPHO

With those totems in place, Ireland’s attack will be built around set-piece structures, with Kelly and the evasive Munster wing Calvin Nash  providing the cutting edge  from there.

Defence was a massive irritant for Malone in the wake of the Six Nations campaign, so he will demand a ferocious effort when his side come out of the traps against the Azzurri.

“Our defensive consistency at times (was lacking). We were good for periods, we just made very, very poor errors in the middle of games,” laments Malone as he casts his mind back to the Six Nations.

Two or three minutes knocking off and that cost us. Certainly against Wales (22 – 9 defeat) we were right in the hunt at the time for the Six Nations Championship and suddenly we concede 14 easy points. That’s going to kill you.

“The big thing for me is to get that defensive consistency right, and you have to get your basics right. We did a review after the Six Nations and if we have high missed tackle stats then we are going to be under pressure… similarly holding on to the ball in contact. The basics done well… and then being switched on for the 80 minutes.”

So the job for Ireland today will be to keep tries conceded column clean and build on gradually from there. New Zealand are back in as pool rivals this year, so even with a knowledge of last year’s win over the Baby Blacks, a solid opening leading on to a bonus point win would be a terrific way to start the tournament.

A view of the press conference Paul Boyle lays down an early marker at this week's press conference in Kutaisi Source: Achi Gegenava/INPHO

F0r those wishing to keep an eye on the wider tournament, New Zealand’s latest crop will kick off their tournament at 10am, with Hurricanes prospect Tiaan Falcon at number 10 against Scotland. Neither of Tana Umaga’s nephews at this tournament will start the opening match, both Justin Umaga (England) and Thomas Umaga-Jensen (New Zealand)  have been asked to settle for the number 23 shirts.

At the same time Ireland face Italy (12.30), there will be a massive clash to start Pool C as The Baby Boks take on France with Romain N’Tamack at out-half and Daniel Brennan, son of ex-Leinster and Toulouse stalwart Trevor, ready to make an impact off the bench.

Let the boys play.

Ireland U20

15. Jack Kelly  (Dublin University / Leinster)
14. Colm Hogan (Dublin University / Munster)
13. Gavin Mullin (UCD / Leinster)
12. Ciaran Frawley (UCD / Leinster)
11. Calvin Nash (Young Munster / Munster)
10. Conor Dean (UCD / Leinster)
9. Jonny Stewart (Queen’s University / Ulster)

1. Joey Conway (UL Bohemians / Munster)
2. Diarmuid Barron (Garryowen / Munster)
3. Charlie Connolly (Dublin University / Leinster)
4. Fineen Wycherley (Young Munster /Munster)
5. Oisin Dowling (Lansdowne / Leinster)
6. Marcus Rea (Queen’s University / Ulster)
7. Paul Boyle (Lansdowne FC/Leinster) (Capt.)
8. Gavin Coombes (Young Munster /Munster)


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16. Ronan Kelleher (UCD / Leinster)
17. Greg McGrath (Lansdowne FC/Leinster)
18. Peter Cooper (Belfast Harlequins/Ulster)
19. Jack Regan (UCD /Leinster)
20. Sean Masterson (Corinthians RFC/Connacht)
21. Jack Stafford (Shannon RFC / Munster)
22. Angus Curtis (Queen’s University / Ulster)
23. Alan Tynan (Young Munster / Munster)

Italy U20

15. Massimo Cioffi (Lazio Rugby)
14. Andrea De Masi (Benetton Treviso)
13. Marco Zanon (Mogliano Rugby)
12. Dario Schiabel (Lafert San Donà)
11. Giovanni D’Onofrio (Rugby Benevento)
10. Antonio Rizzi (Mogliano Rubgy)
9. Charly Vincenzo Ernst Trussardi (Clermont Auvergne)

1. Danilo Fischetti (Unione Rugby Capitolina)
2. Massimo Ceciliani (Delebio Rugby)
3. Marco Riccioni (Patarò Calvisano) (Capt)
4. Niccolò Cannone (Florentia Rugby)
5. Edoardo Iachizzi (USAP Perpignan)
6. Jacopo Bianchi (Vasari Arezzo)
7. Lorenzo Masselli (Sitav Rugby Lyons)
8. Giovanni Licata (Miraglia Rugby)


16. Alberto Rollero (Sitav Rugby Lyons)
17. Daniele Rimpelli (Patarò Calvisano)
18. Dante Gavrilita (Patarò Calvisano)
19. Lodovico Manni (Mogliano Rugby)
20. Michele Lamaro (Lazio Rugby)
21. MatteoMaria Panunzi (Unione Rugby Capitolina)
22. Filippo Di Marco (L’Aquila Rugby Club)
23. Andrea Bronzini (Rugby Viadana 1970)

Today’s WR U20 Championship fixtures (all times Irish)

England v Samoa (Pool A) 10am
New Zealand v Scotland (Pool B) 10am
Ireland v Italy (Pool B) 12.30pm
South Africa v France (Pool C) 12.30pm
Argentina v Georgia (Pool C) 3pm
Australia v Wales (Pool A) 5.30pm

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Sean Farrell

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