Ireland’s World Rugby U20 Championship campaign kicks off today in Santa Fe as Noel McNamara’s side take on England in their Pool B opener.
Ireland are going into this competition in good form having secured the Grand Slam during the Six Nations earlier this year.
Despite some injuries to key players such as David Hawkshaw, Scott Penny and Harry Byrne, expectations are high that Ireland can improve on their recent showings in this competition. They reached the final in 2016 but finished in a disappointing 9th and 11th place in the last two years.
The importance of this competition is increasing all the time as it is often viewed as the perfect platform to lay a claim for a professional contract and to move on to senior rugby.
The team environment, touring, playing against top quality international opposition – all of these different experiences can help prepare players for bridging the gap between underage and senior rugby.
This time 10 years ago, Peter O’Mahony captained the Ireland U20s at the world championships in Japan and he looks back on that time as a vital contributing factor in developing his hunger to become a professional player.
“It gave you huge hunger to tour, certainly,” O’Mahony told Pundit Arena.
“Touring is an incredible part of rugby. What a tour to get as a 19-year-old to be in Japan all of a sudden among a great group of lads. Training and playing for Ireland. An incredible experience. It didn’t go our way but I’ve made great friends and memories from that tour that will stay for me forever.
“It was an incredible trip. It gave me huge hunger for the game and as I said, touring is a super part of rugby. It’s probably my favourite part, to be honest.”
O’Mahony will no doubt be keeping a close eye on some of the Munster contingent throughout their journey in Argentina.
Craig Casey, Jake Flannery, Jonathan Wren, Josh Wycherley and John Hodnett are the Munster players named in Ireland’s starting XV for the clash with England while the likes of Sean French, Ben Healy and Thomas Ahern could also make an appearance from the bench.
O’Mahony believes that it’s hugely important for Munster to have a strong representation in the Ireland U20s squad because playing at this level can help make that transition to senior rugby.
“It’s hugely important. We know how much pressure we put on our Academies to produce for our provinces and for our country. The best way to do that is to get guys who are playing at the highest level at the earliest possible age. The U20s World Cup is an incredibly high standard nowadays. It’s always been that way but it seems to be almost a little mini-group of professional rugby players at this stage.
“From Munster’s point of view, the more players you can get into those environments, the better. It’s like the national setup, the more players you can have in there training at that level, the better fallout you have when you come back into Munster camp. The higher standards there are amongst more of the players, that’s the same for the young fellas as well.”
There is a lot of excitement down south due to the performances of Munster’s underage players during the U20 Six Nations and O’Mahony admits there is some “serious talent” coming through at the moment.
“There’s some serious talent there. It was glaring to see. Guys performing at that level against very good teams and players. We’re lucky but we need to keep pushing as well. It was great to see guys pushing on. As I said at the start, the more the better. The more guys we can produce that can boost the Irish team along with the Munster team is hugely important.
“We certainly have a crop there at the moment who can push guys who are in the squad already at the moment without a shadow of a doubt. That’s what we need, standards being pushed all the time and young guys coming through pushing them on.”
Of course, what comes with being Munster captain is a strong leadership role and O’Mahony is keen to provide support to the younger players coming through although he is cognisant of not putting pressure on them either. It’s all about finding that balance.
“Certainly, look, guys in similar positions to me, you would always be keeping an eye on what they’re doing. You don’t want to be standing on their toes, they need to find their feet but I’ll help in any way I can and be open to them coming to be and asking questions.
“I was on the other side of the coin not too long ago and I had some great support and help from some of the best players in the world and I was very lucky at the time.
“I try to take the stance that if guys need a bit of help and they need to come to me, the door is open. If I see something that I’d like to change in a guy or help a great area of his game develop even further, I’d have no problem saying it to him as well.”
When O’Mahony broke onto the scene 10 years ago, there was no shortage of quality, experienced players to lean on to help make that step up.
The Cork man admits that even though the game has changed so much in the last 10 years, there are still things which he practises to this day which he learned from the like of Paul O’Connell, Alan Quinlan and Anthony Foley.
It proves the importance of sharing valuable information and experience to players who are coming through at a young age.
“Paul [O’Connell] had a huge role in my development from a young age. I used to pick up the phone to him even when I was in the Academy at times. Talking about lineouts and what they were planning. I mightn’t even have been in the squad at the time, you know? But for whatever reason, he used to pick up the phone to me. It made a big difference. Even by the time I got there, he was a guy who I would go to all the time.
“Not just him…guys like Quinny [Alan Quinlan] and Axel [Anthony Foley], David Wallace – incredible mentors to have for a young back row aspiring to play professional rugby. It would be hard to pick a group of guys, Donncha O’Callaghan, Micko [Mick O’Driscoll] – they all gave me their time whenever I needed it and certainly weren’t shy pulling me up if I needed to be.
“I think I had a good grounding from them and the way they used to carry themselves. I try to hold on to a lot of things they taught me. But the game has changed as well. It’s a different animal in some ways. Certainly, a lot of stuff they taught me, I’m still practising.”
HEINEKEN Ireland have kick-started the countdown to the most anticipated sporting event of the year, Rugby World Cup 2019™, Japan. Official worldwide partner once again to Rugby World Cup, Heineken® welcomed one of the most iconic trophies, the Webb Ellis Cup, to Dublin where Ireland’s Peter O’Mahony and Scotland’s John Barclay came together to discuss their upcoming battles as they face each other in Pool A at this year’s tournament.
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