Such is the nature of age-grade rugby, each year brings a whole host of new faces and talent ready to make their mark on the international stage.
For the upcoming U20 Six Nations, Ireland head coach Noel McNamara welcomes back seven players who were involved in last year’s edition of the tournament and at the World Cup which took place in Argentina.
One of those returning faces is David McCann and he has been given the honour of captaining his country for the upcoming Six Nations which sees Ireland kick off their title defence against Scotland at Irish Independent Park on Friday, January 31st (7.15pm).
The Year 2 Academy flanker, who has played consistently in the Celtic Cup this season for Ulster A, admits it’s a great honour to be asked to lead his country.
“It’s great,” McCann said.
“Growing up and watching the 20s captains, that’s something you desire to be as you go, as you play rugby. Something you’d love to be so, yeah. Great honour.”
The players and the head coach continually stress that the onus is not just on the captain but the wider leadership group to drive the “zero-standards” (more on that later) in training and matches.
When asked by McNamara to lead Ireland during the Six Nations, it was a straight-forward decision considering the support he will have from within the squad.
“Noel [McNamara] gauged with me how I felt with it and I said I was happy enough because I knew whatever happened, that leadership group and the group in general; everyone’s supportive and everyone knows how we’re building and how we want to get to where we want to get to.
“I think there’s not much pressure on anyone individually. It’s just a group that works well and the leadership group knows their role within that and helping everyone out.”
With seven players, including McCann, returning for a second stint at this level, they, alongside the leadership group, will be the ones driving the intensity in training and matches.
“I think just the way Noel drives everyone, he expects everyone to be up there. He knows that within the leadership group – which has three people returning and four who are new to 20s – Noel expects them to drive the standards. He doesn’t put too much focus or pressure on the boys who are returning.”
Those standards, or “zero-standards”, are a core mantra to this young side and it involves being the best at the things which require no talent as McCann explains:
“It’s definitely a major thing for us because it’s something that doesn’t require any rugby ability. It’s hard work, thinking about your role. The simple things that anyone should be able to do. Once you add that to a talented group that we have, that’s when we really start playing.”
While the senior side struggled in 2019, the U20s flourished in last year’s Six Nations and already many of last year’s contingent have gone on to play senior rugby at their provinces at both PRO14 and European level.
McCann knows the pathway is clear and it’s also a motivating factor for the group.
“We’re [Ulster] building well and you can see the new coaches and the new energy that’s been brought in has worked on the pitch. Everyone’s playing well. There’s room to push on, but it’s a young squad and everyone’s hoping to. I hope to be a part of that.”
“You get through, keep moving up through the levels and once you get past your 20s that’s when you’re usually looking to push on into the seniors.”
Ireland open their campaign against Scotland before welcoming Wales to Cork a week later. One of the consequences of being champions is having a target on your back and the other teams will no doubt want to knock Ireland off their perch.
Although this is in the minds of the players, they can’t dwell on it too much and must focus on the opening game in just over a week’s time.
“Definitely not [burden of being champions]. That’s come and gone. It’s a fresh start with mostly new boys. I think everyone is just looking forward to getting into it. Defending it, yeah you have a bit of that [target] in your mind. But nothing serious, it’s just get in there and play our own game.
“(World Cup) is definitely something to look forward to, but it’s in the back of my mind now. Got to focus on what’s ahead and we start next Friday.”
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