IRISH RUGBY HASN’T been in much better state than this.
The reigning Grand Slam champions seem in a mood to go again, the world number one slot is within reach, all four provinces are in the knockout stages of Europe and the presence of two of them in a quarter-final brought about a rapid Aviva Stadium sell-out yesterday.
And yet, at least one constant of the old rugby order remains. While England’s senior side arrived Dublin last night as a team deserving immense respect, there is no logic to fear them. But at age grade, they remain an irresistible force.
England’s U20s have romped to win six of the last 11 Six Nations titles and have made the World Rugby U20 Championship final nine times in the same period. Whatever the peaks and troughs of the senior side, there is no denying the efficiency of the production line up until the age of 20.
Among the current crop in Cork, blindside Ted Hill is already a senior international, replacement Cameron Redpath was called to tour with Eddie Jones’ squad last summer only to be hit by injury while out-half Marcus Smith was grabbing attention in Champions Cup rugby last season.
Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO
So the on-paper version of England U20 promises as tough a task as ever for Noel McNamara’s boys when they get their campaign under way in Musgrave Park tonight (kick-off 19.15).
That said, there is always space for a positive approach, hope.
And a ‘dream’ is precisely how the Cork contingent in this squad view the opportunity to run out for international honours on Leeside.
“It’s unbelievable. It’s a dream come true. You always look forward to these moments when you’re a young fella coming up,” says loosehead Josh Wycherley.
“It’s a new 4G and it’s a brilliant park. Hopefully there’ll be a good crowd out for it. It’s exciting.”
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Wycherley will be at the coal-face of Ireland’s efforts to stunt England in the Rebel county. But he and his pack will be acutely aware of the wider aim to not get drawn into an arm-wrestle. Instead using that lightning quick 4G surface to keep the young Saxons from settling.
“We’re keen on playing with pace, and moving England around as much as we possibly can,” said head coach Noel McNamara.
In Wycherley, he has dynamic prop – with history as a full forward in hurling and Gaelic Football for St Colum’s in Bantry – who will hope to deliver that sort of destructive mobility to counteract a world leader of U20 rugby. First and foremost, though, comes set-piece.
Josh Wycherley on the run in training. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO
“England are always like that,” adds Wycherley, younger brother of Munster lock Fineen, “they’re big fellas, they’re going to try and bully you up front all the time. As a pack, really, we just try and nail down our detail at scrum time and we just try and win the height battle.
“Just keep our connections together and go as eight. We just try to stay together and keep our feet on the ground, and get go-forward. Against a bigger pack, you’re not always going to make those yards, but as long as you can get good ball for the backs to play, it’s a good turnout.”
Creating that platform would go a long way towards victory for Ireland tonight, Leinster flanker Scott Penny’s influence will be crucial in that regard and he will hope his efforts create space for provincial team-mates in the 10-12 axis – Harry Byrne and David Hawkshaw – to put their passing and playmaking skill to use.