HomeWorldOpportunity knocks for exciting young Irish U-20 stars on World Cup stage

Opportunity knocks for exciting young Irish U-20 stars on World Cup stage

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Buoyed by last year’s run to the final, and a positive Six Nations earlier this year, Ireland head into the tournament full of optimism.

With a strong core of players, including captain Evan O’Connell, back for a second shot at World Cup glory, Ireland are in a good place ahead of their Pool B opener against Italy tomorrow (3.30pm) before they take on Georgia (July 4) and Australia (July 9).

Such is the nature of age-grade rugby, there has been plenty of change in terms of the playing squad, as well as the coaching staff, with Willie Faloon promoted as head coach in light of Richie Murphy’s departure to Ulster.

Murphy took charge of the Six Nations campaign that saw England pip Ireland to the title by a single point in a dramatic final round.

For all that Ireland were devastated to come up agonisingly short, there were many positives to take, not least in that they went unbeaten. With that in mind, Faloon and his backroom team, which now includes Neil Doak, who will run the attack, along with fellow assistants Ian Keatley and Aaron Dundon, have solid foundations to work from.

It is no surprise that Faloon is keen to build on the good work that has already been done with this talented squad rather than rip up the script and start from scratch.

“I suppose, because the changeover came quite late in the day, and this is a group that’s obviously worked together a lot, we haven’t looked to make a lot of changes,” said Faloon, who played in the back-row with his home province Ulster and Connacht.

“Just subtle changes, a few things just to evolve how we play; as we want to go a little bit deeper in and play a bit harder in.

“Because I’m head coach now and the roles have changed, I can lead a little bit more now around that defence where we want to go a little bit harder, you know?

“We’ve tried to kick on a layer from what we did in the Six Nations. We’re working with a development group and there’s always going to be that effort to add layers to what we do.

“We’re trying to do that with every part of the game from my side. From the defensive point of view, we want to bring on that aspect.”

The return of the fit-again Brian Gleeson is a major boost, although he’s not involved tomorrow. The outstanding Munster back-row missed the majority of the Six Nations having started with a towering performance in the win away to France.

“I am happy I am playing with him rather than against him,” said out-half Jack Murphy, whose superb kicking saw him finish as top scorer (36) in the Six Nations. “Brian is a very driven lad. He’d probably fit his way into most 20s teams around the world.” ​

Ahead of joining the Ulster academy and linking up with his dad Richie, Murphy has a key role to play.

Centre Sam Berman is also back in the mix following a spell out. Like Gleeson, O’Connell, Hugh Gavin and Danny Sheahan, Berman was part of last year’s squad. ​

“There are loads of lads who understand what it takes to go well in South Africa,” Murphy added. “They are feeding in stuff to the lads who haven’t been there. I haven’t been there myself. There is absolutely great optimism in the team because we know how good we can be. All the lads are excited, the morale is very high.”

The tone will be set against Italy tomorrow, and given how close the Azzurri pushed Ireland in Cork in February, it would be foolish to underestimate the task at hand. As well as that, an improving Georgian side hammered England lately, while Australia will always pose a major threat.

That said, this is a pool that Ireland will hope to top and earn a high seeding come the knockout stages, as they look to adjust to the demands of a condensed tournament.

“We’ve spoken a lot around such close turnarounds,” Faloon said. “We’ve got five games, five-day turnarounds and it’s pretty intense. We’re well aware of the challenge from last year and we’ve spoken about it a good bit. The players are excited about it but they know it’s going to be a tough challenge.”

It’s not that long ago the likes of Jack Crowley, Joe McCarthy, Sam Prendergast and Jamie Osborne – all of whom are currently in South Africa as part of Andy Farrell’s squad – were blazing a trail at this level.

The stage is set once again for the latest crop of exciting young Irish stars to make their mark.

IRELAND U20s (v Italy): B O’Connor; D Colbert, F Treacy, S Berman, H McLaughlin; J Murphy, O Coffey; J Boyd, D Sheahan, P Bell; A Spicer, E O’Connell (c); S Edogbo, M Flynn, L Murphy. Reps: S Smyth, E Calvey, A Sparrow, J McKillop, B Ward, J O’Riordan, S Naughton, H Gavin.

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