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AIL influence serves Ireland U20s well as McNamara looks for more

“Without it, the 20s would be in serious strife”
Feb 3rd 2020, 6:45 AM 6,011 2

HUGE POSITIVES, BUT room for improvement, would about sum up head coach Noel McNamara’s assessment of Ireland U20s’ 38-26 opening night win over Scotland.

The Leinster academy director applied the dual-sided razor to several aspects. Be it the two-try match-winner Jack Crowley, the tenacious Ulster wing Ethan McIlroy or the defence as a unit.

Thomas Ahern was one of the few to emerge without caveats, though the question was framed around the second row’s remarkable pace and there was no room to question that after his gallop for Ireland’s fifth try.

Yet through McNamara’s review of Ahern and Crowley alike, he often finds himself reflecting back to their exploits in the All-Ireland League.

“Without it, the 20s would be in serious strife. It’s an absolutely fantastic competition for young players,” McNamara says when a scribe points out how often he has mentioned the AIL in the space of a few short minutes.

“You look at every single one of them out there and every one of them have already played consistently for their club.

“And not just played, but performed. It’s challenging playing with men, against men.”

Indeed, the Clare man’s opposite number Sean Lineen had noted pre-match that the SRU have been working to create a bridging structure to carry young players from academies to serious senior rugby and have this season come up a Super 6s tournament to run parallel to their Premiership.

“We’re lucky we have it. We have some excellent coaches and we have some really, really good level of competition. I’m hugely grateful for the competition and for what it does for young players.”

From Crowley’s run at the reins with Cork Con, Ahern’s time with Shannon, or Trinity pair Joe McCarthy and Luis Faria. The AIL plays an under-appreciated role as a springboard for elite Irish rugby talent. And for those who fall short of international or the pro ranks, it is there as a net. A tether for rugby that extends far from the top echelon.

“I think communication is really important and I think that’s something which is improving all the time,” adds McNamara.

“I think for the development of our young players, for the development of our academy players, I can’t stress enough how important the AIL is. For us, it’s about continuing to improve the level of communication and the season calendar I think is the key.”

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jack-crowley Cork Con's Jack Crowley during Friday's win over Scotland. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Clubs across the island will have to do without their brightest young talent in the weeks ahead, but the U20 Six Nations is an excellent proving ground. Matching up against their international peers with large attendances and TV audiences watching on is invaluable experience.

McNamara was pleased to see his side perform under scrutiny and also return six tries in difficult conditions against a dangerous Scottish outfit.

“The conditions were challenging, it was a really strong breeze. I thought we played really, really well in the first half. We kept hold of the ball well and exited well a couple of times as well considering the conditions.

“To score those three tries in the first half, we probably went in at half-time feeling that we were in a really good position. 

“In the second half we probably just struggled to control the momentum of the game a little bit. Some of our kicking and some of our decision-making just wasn’t where it needed to be.”

“I think certainly some of our decision-making, particularly around the momentum when we had momentum, maybe using the weather conditions as well, you know, we probably haven’t trained in very windy conditions. Having the indoor surface up in Abbotstown is probably spoiling us a little bit.

gregor-brown-and-brian-deeny Brian Deeny greets his opponents post-match. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

A loss of focus was understandable in Ireland as they produced blistering rugby on either side of half-time to tilt a tight contest their way with brilliant tries from Crowley, Ahern and Andrew Smith.

The reigning champions should be confident when they return to Musgrave Park next weekend to host a Welsh side reeling after defeat to Italy.

“I’ve no doubt Wales will be better for the experience. They’ll be smarting from that,” says the Clare man.

“They don’t lose that often in Colwyn Bay so they’re certainly going to present us with a big challenge next Friday night, I’ve no doubt about that.”

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Sean Farrell

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