NOEL MCNAMARA IS quick to ensure none of this becomes about him, but it’s hard to ignore the Clare native’s development into one of Ireland’s outstanding young coaches in the context of his team’s success.
McNamara has spoken at length during this championship about a tight-knit squad, a selfless and hard-working group who have developed an enviable dressing-room bond to become Six Nations champions. He has deflected praise away from himself and onto the players, celebrating their character, maturity and focus.
Ireland U20s head coach Noel McNamara. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO
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But all of those qualities evidenced during a memorable campaign have been instilled in the team by McNamara and his coaching staff, not just during this window but over the last two years as they have risen through the age grades.
Victory in north Wales tonight would see the class of 2019 emulate the feat of Eric Elwood’s 2007 star-studded side to become just the second Ireland U20s team to complete a Grand Slam, scaling rarefied heights while achieving their own piece of history.
Ireland have found a way to win in this championship. At times, their backs have been against the wall and questions were asked of them, but, against England and against France, they found a way.
Last week in Cork, they conjured an outstanding performance to topple the world champions and defending Six Nations title holders in front of a febrile crowd at Musgrave Park. It was thrilling, it was intoxicating, and it had McNamara’s fingerprints all over it.
He spoke pre-match about running France into the ground, and that’s exactly what they did. They played a high-tempo game, utilising the fast 4G surface to maximum effect and nailed the game-plan on a monumental night. As has been the case throughout the campaign, Ireland were never prepared to lie down and they earned the ultimate reward. Now, a Grand Slam is within their grasp.
Two years ago, McNamara told this very group — just after they’d come from 17 points down to beat Wales in an U18 international — that they would go on and win a Grand Slam. Few would have believed him then, few doubt him now.
Only Liam Turner, the former Blackrock College captain, remembered what McNamara said to them that day but it was clear, from then, that this group of players had potential. Their coach knew it. He just had to make it happen.
“We went for dinner last Monday and you could hardly hear yourself in the restaurant because guys are chatting,” McNamara explains. “There is nobody on their phones. It’s a group that just really get on with each other and they really enjoy each other’s company. That has been a significant factor.
“I think it’s a special group of people, there is absolutely no doubt about that because if you could make it happen, you make it happen with every team.
“You can create opportunities, you can try and see but when these types of things happen organically they are always way stronger than if it is trying to be forged. I used to say around Clongowes, when they live together, you live and breath it for a couple of years, which creates a very tightly knit bond.
McNamara with his daughters, Isolt and Aria, in Cork last week. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO
“You can’t force that. You can give organic opportunities and it’s up to people to take them and this group certainly has.”
McNamara’s teaching background has helped shape his coaching philosophy and his rise through the ranks of the school and underage system has been a remarkable success story given he had no previous professional playing experience.
From Glenstal Abbey, to guiding Clongowes to two Leinster Senior Schools Cup crowns, to the Leinster U20, development and ‘A’ teams, to the Ireland U20s role, McNamara is a student of coaching.
A three-month stint in New Zealand at the end of last year as part of the IRFU’s coach development programme allowed McNamara broaden his horizons and develop his ideas as defence coach with Mitre 10 Cup side North Harbour.
It was a big move for the 37-year-old, who had to relocate his young family to the other side of the world, but the time spent in a different environment was hugely valuable for McNamara.
One of the many ideas and concepts he returned to Ireland with was that of a player-driven culture, and it has been evident throughout this U20 championship.
“I think one of the things that was very clear over there, and one of the things that I would believe in and have probably tried to practice a little bit, was player ownership,” he explains.
“Even during games, we would ask questions of ‘How are they going down there? What’s the conversations like?’ Rather than immediately giving in ‘Do this, do that’.
“At half-time, it’s very much a conversation. What are the threats, what are we doing well?What do we need to improve on? What are the things that are expected, what has been unexpected and so on. It’s very much a two-way conversation.”
The development of a leadership group, rather than placing a particular emphasis on the role of the captain, has been another important contributor to the success of the side, with McNamara firm in his belief that too much responsibility can be a burden for a young player. Instead, it’s shared among the group.
“For us, this week, it’s one more time,” he continues. “We’re not going to change anything, we’re not going to change our approach. I suggested changing something to the leadership group in week three and it was immediately shot down and that’s what it’s about.
“It’s not about what I think they need, it’s collaborative. It may not work for next year’s group, every group is different and you have to find what the right pitch is. You can’t copy and paste and I really do believe that. I definitely learned things in New Zealand, I learned things last year, I learned things in Glenstal.
The Clare native has played an integral role in the development of this team. Source: Matteo Ciambelli/INPHO
“One of the main things is that people are different, groups are different and you can’t take something that has worked for Stuart [Lancaster] at Leinster or has worked for Ireland. You can take the shiny bits, maybe some concepts, maybe some principles, but you’ve got to be able to bring it together and apply it to an individual idiosyncratic group.”
With four wins to their name, Ireland are aiming to complete the job at Colwyn Bay this evening [KO 7.05pm, RTÉ 2] and augment their championship crown with a clean sweep of victories. It would be a huge moment and achievement for the team and McNamara, but they have remained focused on the task in hand. One more hurdle to negotiate, one box to tick.
“The thing for us was, we weren’t afraid of talking about it,” the head coach says. “It was never a banned word. It was never something that wasn’t spoken about.
“For us, the approach this week is very much ‘one more time’. We’ve had the solutions in Cork, we’ve had the solutions in Galashiels [against Scotland], we’ve had the solutions in Rieti [Italy]. We’ve had the solutions again in Cork and we believe we’ll have the solutions again on the weekend.
“The boys are aware of the opportunity that’s there. That’s come about by backing themselves and doing all the right things in the previous rounds.”
Wales will provide a stiff challenge. They’re strong in defence and have a proud home record, while Ireland have never won at Colwyn Bay.
“The one thing I will say about this group is they’re motivated by challenge,” McNamara adds. “They’re certainly not diminished by it. It’s something we’ve already spoken about, is that record.
“That’s certainly something that they’ve worked really hard at doing up to this point. I’ve absolutely no doubt they will again on Friday.”
McNamara has always believed. He did so before anyone else did, but that’s all part of the job.
“I wouldn’t rank winning a Six Nations with anything,” he insists. “I take as much joy out of coaching the U13s in Clongowes as I do in coaching these boys. I love coaching, I love being involved in a group that are greater than the sum of their parts. And that’s what I believe this group are. They’re far stronger as a collective than individually.”
Bernard Jackman joins Murray Kinsella and Ryan Bailey on The42 Rugby Weekly as Ireland bid to spoil Wales’ Grand Slam party in Cardiff, and the U20s target their own piece of history.
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