Ireland U20s head coach Noel McNamara believes that the U20 age-grade is an ideal platform for players to grow and develop into senior players.
And it’s difficult to argue with when you consider the rise of some of last year’s Grand Slam-winning contingent.
Azur Allison (Ulster), Ryan Baird (Leinster), Michael Milne (Leinster), Niall Murray (Connacht), Scott Penny (Leinster), Harry Byrne (Leinster), Craig Casey (Munster), Ben Healy (Munster), Angus Kernohan (Ulster) and Stewart Moore (Ulster) have all made senior appearances for their respective provinces.
Go back to the 2018 U20 squad and players like Tom O’Toole and Ronan Kelleher are in Andy Farrell’s senior squad for the upcoming Six Nations.
This year’s crop contains seven players who featured at U20 level last year and Irish rugby supporters will be looking forward to seeing who will be the standout players.
Of course, Ireland will be looking to defend their Six Nations crown after winning the Grand Slam in 2019 but McNamara emphasises that what worked last year for the group won’t necessarily be the way forward with the new players he has at his disposal.
“The reality and the cyclical nature of the U-20s is it’s very much a one-year programme,” McNamara said.
“It’s a new group. While there are things we will look replicate, the reality is you can’t copy and paste either. Just because something worked for last year’s group it doesn’t necessarily mean it is automatically going to work for this year’s group.”
“That is the really exciting thing about this age-group for me. There is no ceiling. It is absolutely up to them. And this group are really eager to leave their mark and their little imprint on Irish rugby.”
The key ethos this year, as McNamara explains, is that of “zero-talent moments” – the head coach and the leadership group within the squad will be driving the message that this team needs to be the best at the aspects of the game such as work-ethic, physicality and desire.
“They are certainly a hard-working team. That is something that they have spoken about, that they have set their stall out that they want to be winning those zero-talent moments. Winning the things that don’t require any talent, whether that be their attitude, whether that be their body language, whether that be their work ethic. And that will be reflected in the games hopefully as well.”
McNamara knows that this is a great opportunity for the squad to stake a claim for senior rugby for their respective provinces or at the very least, lay the foundations for a positive and successful future in professional rugby.
“The U-20s is so competitive. We see now; Caelan Doris, Tom O’Toole, Ronan Kelleher go from the U-20s within one year to be in a senior Six Nations squad. We see last year Ryan Baird and Harry Byrne to be in that development [squad]. We see players playing Champions Cup in Niall Murray, Ben Healy, Craig Casey. This is an incredibly high level of rugby. That is the reality. I think it’s a fantastic age-grade to be involved with.”
“That’s the reality. James Ryan went from playing U20s to a senior tour for Ireland at the end of the following season. That’s what the lads are seeing. They’re seeing this pathway that’s been worn for them and they want a part of it.
“To me, that’s what it’s all about, really. Yes, our ambition is to win, absolutely and we’ll make no apologies for that. Our ambition is to win Test matches and so on but equally, it’s about providing an opportunity for these players to grow and to develop.”
Ireland Under-20 2020 Six Nations Fixtures:
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