future stars

POC 'a huge addition' as ambitious Ireland U20s look to Six Nations

Noel McNamara’s squad includes 11 players previously capped at this level.

AS COACHING APPOINTMENTS go, bringing on board someone of Paul O’Connell’s rugby intellect is impressive business.

Noel McNamara, who is now in charge of the Ireland U20s, had tried to convince O’Connell to join his Ireland U18s set-up over recent seasons, but the former Munster lock is naturally a busy man.

Paul O'Connell O'Connell is the Ireland U20s forwards coach. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

O’Connell finally accepted the offer to come on board with the U20s this season, however, and will drive McNamara’s forwards in the upcoming Six Nations and beyond.

While he is an impressive addition to the U20s coaching group, O’Connell would be the first to point out that he is very much still learning the ropes in coaching.

McNamara is delighted to have the legendary former second row involved but highlights that O’Connell is not presuming he knows anything based on his playing record alone.

“Paul has been a huge addition to the coaching group,” said McNamara after naming his U20s squad at PwC in Dublin yesterday. “Obviously, he is someone who has a huge standing, not only in Irish rugby but in world rugby. He’s added a lot of value.

“First and foremost, Paul is a really good person. He’s extremely humble. He’s come in and very openly said that there are things that he needs to learn as well.

“He has a very strong background in rugby but the coaching and everything else, he’s done some work with different teams already but he’s not someone who is coming in and telling guys, ‘You have to do this, you have to do that.’”

O’Connell’s involvement adds profile to the Ireland U20s, but McNamara is keen to point out that ex-Ireland Women’s head coach Tom Tierney has added value as defence coach, while Connacht man Ambrose Conboy has done the same as their scrum specialist.

Tommy O'Brien Tommy O'Brien captains this year's crop. Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

McNamara’s efforts as head coach of the U20s will be interesting to follow too, given that he has risen from schools coaching to this role without having had a professional playing career before, but the success or otherwise of this group will be down to the players.

The U20s yesterday confirmed a 32-man squad for the Six Nations, featuring 11 players who were capped at this level last season.

Tommy O’Brien, who is set to play at outside centre, captains the squad after showing his exciting promise during last year’s Six Nations, during which he also played on the wing.

“He brings a lot of credibility from a playing perspective, I would feel,” said McNamara of Leinster academy man O’Brien. “We had a vote and Tommy came out very favourably in that vote. Equally, he’s got a very good understanding of the game.

“He’s got a great attitude towards getting better. Tommy has a superb attitude towards continually improving, not only the areas he’s deficient on but also on his strengths.

“I think that’s something that we would value quite highly, that quality and that chasing getting better.”

The experience of returning players such as back row Sean Masterson, hooker Ronan Kelleher and scrum-half Jonny Stewart could be important for this U20s group, although they expect strong competition in every position.

Ronan Kelleher Hooker Ronan Kelleher is back in the U20s squad. Oisin Keniry / INPHO Oisin Keniry / INPHO / INPHO

Among the new faces, there will be particular excitement around Leinster’s powerful and skilful tighthead Jack Aungier, Ulster’s flying wing Angus Kernohan, Munster’s dynamic back row Jack O’Sullivan and the promising Leinster halfback pairing of Hugh O’Sullivan and Harry Byrne.

McNamara has five U19 players in this group, with Byrne, Leinster lock Charlie Ryan, Munster fullback Conor Hayes, former Wales underage international James McCarthy and Kernohan all eligible again next year.

Highly-promising players such as Ulster centre James Hume and Munster pair Craig Casey and Dan Hurley are among those unlucky to miss out through injury, although they could come back into the frame later in the championship.

One man who won’t feature at all is the outstanding Leinster number eight Caelan Doris, who was one of Ireland’s best players during last year’s campaign, with a hamstring tear ruling him out of the entire Six Nations.

As ever, it’s difficult to assess how this Ireland U20s side will fare. A trip away to France in the first round will either build or deny them momentum, while the promise of players is never any guarantee of results.

The likes of Jordan Larmour, Jacob Stockdale, Andrew Porter and James Ryan have shown in recent times how the U20s can act as a launchpad. Time for the next generation to step up.

Ireland U20 squad for 2018 Six Nations:

Props: Jack Aungier (St. Mary’s/Leinster), Tom O’Toole (Banbridge/Ulster), Joe Byrne (Dublin University/Leinster), Jordan Duggan (Naas/Leinster), James French (UCC/Munster)

Hookers: Ronan Kelleher (Lansdowne/Leinster), Diarmuid Barron (Garryowen/Munster)

Locks: Cormac Daly (Clontarf/Leinster), Jack Dunne (Dublin University/Leinster), Charlie Ryan (UCD /Leinster), Ronan Coffey (Shannon/Munster), Matthew Dalton (Malone/Ulster)

Back rows: Jack O’Sullivan (UCC/Munster), Sean Masterson (Corinthians/Connacht), Max Kearney (Dublin University/Leinster), Aaron Hall (Ballynahinch/Ulster), Matthew Agnew (Ballymenia/Ulster), Joe Dunleavy (Malone/Ulster)

Halfbacks: Jonny Stewart (Queen’s University/Ulster), Hugh O’Sullivan (Clontarf /Leinster), Conor Dean (St. Mary’s/Leinster), Angus Curtis (Queen’s University/Ulster), Harry Byrne (UCD/Leinster)

Centres: Tommy O’Brien (UCD/Leinster) (captain), Sean O’Brien (Clontarf/Leinster), David McCarthy (Garryowen/Munster)

Back threes: Michael Silvester (Dublin University/Leinster), Peter Sullivan (Lansdowne/Leinster), James McCarthy (UL Bohemian/Munster), Conor Hayes (Young Munster/Munster), Mark Keane (Queen’s University/Ulster), Angus Kernohan (Ballymena/Ulster).

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