'We've set the bar quite high for them' - Ireland squad takes shape ahead of U20s Six Nations

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THERE’S ALWAYS an element of the unknown when it comes to the U20s Six Nations.

Bar the odd shooting star who might be making inroads at club level, most of the players involved are still operating somewhat under the radar. That can make life difficult for a coach, with little video footage on hand to properly analyse the opposition.

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And this year is particularly challenging, according to Ireland U20s head coach Richie Murphy, because not only is he unsure of what exactly the opposition will bring – “We haven’t seen anything of the opposition players” – even his own players are a little undercooked.

Murphy named his 31-man squad for the tournament yesterday, but was keen to play down expectations. Due to the disruption caused by the pandemic, most of his players have reached this level without experiencing the stepping stones of U18s and U19s representative rugby.

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“It is an issue, definitely,” Murphy says.

“Ok, a lot of them haven’t played for Ireland at U18s or U19s, but even a lot of them have missed their Schools Cup rugby over the past couple of seasons as well, so there is definitely something missing there for some of the guys, and it means their learning curve is a little bit steeper probably than it would have been if they had had those experiences. 

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“But the one thing I couldn’t fault is their application and dedication towards the whole thing. They’ve been really focused and worked really hard in the camps we’ve had.”

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Murphy ran the rule over a group of 54 players across five camps and three warm-up games before finalising his 31-man squad. He reckons only a handful of players were available to attend all five camps, so preparation hasn’t been ideal.

'We’ve set the bar quite high for them' - Ireland squad takes shape ahead of U20s Six Nations
© Bryan Keane An Ireland U20s selection lost to a Leinster development side earlier this month.

That said, he’s been impressed by how quickly the group have formed a bond ahead of the tournament, which for Ireland starts with a home game against Wales in Musgrave Park next Friday.

In those warm-up games, he’s watched his U20s lose to Italy and beat a Munster development team (both December) before losing to a Leinster development side earlier this month. From what he’s seen, he admits the squad might lack a little bit of punch up front, but stresses that as always, the Ireland U20s will look to employ a fast, open style of rugby.

The strengths of the team, I think individually we’ve got some really good players. What they’ve shown in the games over the last few weeks is quite a tight unity, and they work hard for each other. So we’re really trying to build on that, and there are obviously very good individuals there as well.

“The big thing is trying to open their eyes really and bring them with us. The thing, I suppose, from a coach’s point of view… In some situations it’s taking us a little bit longer to get to where we wanted to get to, but we haven’t just said ‘Right, we’re not doing that’ because these guys haven’t had as much experience.

“We’ve set the bar quite high for them and we’ve stretched them. What we’ve done is, we’ve kept reviewing and looking back in order to make sure we’re going in the right direction. We haven’t curtailed the game plan.

“We’re definitely trying to play the space. The skill set of the players is good. Their ability to stay in the moment, keep focused and keep working towards that plan is probably where they haven’t been in those high pressure situations enough over that period.”

And it’s not just the players who are getting to know each other, with Murphy also bringing in a new-look coaching team this season.

Former Connacht forwards coach Jimmy Duffy is now on board, with former Ulster and Connacht backrow Willie Faloon looking after the defence and St Mary’s man Mark Sexton – brother of Ireland and Leinster captain Johnny – taking responsibility for skills and backs.

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“They’ve really hit the ground running,” Murphy continues.

Jimmy has obviously got massive experience. Myself and Jimmy have known each other for a very long time. We worked with Irish youths, going back maybe 15 years. We’ve had a friendship since then. Working with Jimmy again has been really good. He’s a top quality forwards coach. His experience for those guys in those positions has been massive.

“Willie Faloon is obviously not too recently retired, but retired through injury and is a young coach. Worked in the Ulster pathway, has come in and has brought in some really good enthusiasm and is a quality coach. Great attitude, high workrate, like most of the young coaches do in Ireland.

“Then Mark Sexton, the funny thing is obviously I’ve worked with Johnny for quite a long time, since Johnny was in the Leinster Academy. I’ve known Mark, but I haven’t known Mark very well. To get to know him over the last while has been really good.

“He’s a very good coach. He works with me on the attack side of the game and I see a lot of the traits that Johnny has, in relation to how he analyses opposition and how he coaches the team. He has been a real strong addition to that.”

Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

Bernard Jackman, Murray Kinsella, and Gavan Casey glance ahead to the Six Nations, chat about the Irish provinces’ progress in Europe, then discuss the latest off-the-pitch drama in Welsh rugby. 

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