The Ireland U20s were not long celebrating their remarkable Six Nations Grand Slam before the demands of the rest of the season kicked back in and they had gone their separate ways. One night of celebration with the players and their families at the team hotel in Colwyn Bay after Wales had been beaten 26-17 at Parc Eirias last Friday and it was straight back to Manchester for the return flight to Dublin on Saturday morning while head coach Noel McNamara resumed his planning for the U20 World Championship in Argentina, starting June 4.
“There’s never a huge amount of time to dwell on it really,” McNamara told the Irish Examiner yesterday. “There’s some of them even playing this weekend with their clubs in the AIL, a couple of guys from Ulster went across to Boston as part of the Ulster A squad for the Cara Cup, so it moves on.
“The planning for Argentina has started already, looking at schedules and lead-in times. It’s always a challenge planning around guys’ college exams and their availability around those schedules. It’s the business end of the season for clubs as well and it’s getting the balance right between all of that. That’s all part of the next chapter.”
As for the chapter just closed, there is much to be reflected upon, not least about a group of players widely seen as lacking star power but which exceeded both expectations and the exploits of previous seasons when a Six Nations title eluded teams with more exalted personnel. The class of 2019 emulated their 2007 predecessors when a team including Cian Healy, Darren Cave, Keith Earls, Ian Keatley, and Felix Jones swept all before them in the inaugural U20 Six Nations. This time around, following an opening win in Cork against pre-championship favourites England, the title was secured in Musgrave Park in round four against France and the slam completed in north Wales with a team missing a trio of influential leaders in scrum-half Craig Casey, fly-half Harry Byrne, and captain David Hawkshaw.
It was a campaign built on resilience and composure under pressure, qualities McNamara had identified in his squad when he first coached them at U18 schools level for an international tournament in Wales in April 2017.
“A lot of the same players would have been involved and even then you could see there was a lot of resilience around the group, a lot of talent as well, obviously but it was evident that they worked very hard, there was a lot of potential there but they were also quite resilient.
“Even when things weren’t going their way, they were 17 points down at half-time against Wales in that U18 tournament and came back and won it at the death. A lot of those guys were only 17 at the time and I think that was the first indication of it. A lot of them have gone on since then. You look at what Scott Penny’s done, Angus Kernohan up in Ulster, even in the A campaign, an awful lot of them played Celtic Cup — Josh Wycherley was an ever-present for Munster throughout their campaign — and a good few of them would have been involved with Leinster in their Celtic Cup win as well. Scott Penny and Harry Byrne would have been heavily involved throughout the course of that campaign as well, the likes of Charlie Ryan as well.
“So there were those indicators that they were capable of doing well but it’s very difficult to predict they would be capable of winning a Grand Slam. The reality is, during the course of the campaign, there were times when they rode their luck and in any achievement, there are times when backs are to the wall and that’s a testament to them.
“Sometimes when things aren’t going your way it’s your reaction that counts. Failure is never fatal, it’s how you react to it and that was the hallmark of the group. When their backs were to the wall, when they were really under the pump they tended to come back with something and something positive. So I think that is the main mark of the group.”
Other character traits in the squad also impressed their head coach with McNamara adding: “Another thing we spoke about quite a bit was not being afraid of making mistakes and this group certainly weren’t. If you become inhibited by the fear of making mistakes it can have a real paralysing effect and the boys never allowed that to be the case. They stuck to their processes, they still were prepared to play their game, they trusted themselves and they got rewarded for that. I do think their ability to reset, particularly in times of adversity and when they were really under the pump was probably one of the things that really stood to them.
“Also, they did show themselves to have the ability to problem-solve on the pitch, to adapt which is what you’re looking for in young players, to be able to own solutions and to be able to apply them as well.”
It is suggested to McNamara that such player empowerment must come from the coaching staff but the Clare man insisted it was something slightly different than that.
“I think you have to have a philosophy of a player-centred approach and that’s something I would subscribe to. I’m not even sure it’s empowerment, it’s ownership. I really feel the players have to own what they’re doing and feel that they own the solutions. If you own something you’re far more likely to take care of it. It’s a subtle difference but it is something we would have really looked to have the players really involved in the decision-making process and in different ways.
“We have a leadership group involved in the decision-making around the rugby and we have an ops group as well that are involved in some of the operational side of what we do. It’s about having the players involved to the point that they feel they own the solutions and if they own the solutions they’re far more likely to see them executed.”
Yet for all the foundations laid, the quality of this squad, McNamara insists, needs to be judged over a long period of time and it’s important they are allowed to continue their development at provincial level if their success is to be sustained.
“For me, you won’t judge the success of this season until 20 years’ time and then you can reflect and say ‘well, where have these guys gone in the game, what have they achieved as players, as people?’
“I think one of the main strengths of Irish rugby is the strength of the pathway and how people are prepared to give young players opportunities. That’s exactly what my hope would be for these players, that they will get opportunities because if they do I think they’re good enough.
“The World Cup is another great opportunity for these guys. There’s going to be 31 international players away in the early part of the season and we would hope all the way up until the end of October where Ireland will be involved in the business end of that World Cup. So what a fantastic opportunity for some of these guys who will have played a high level of rugby in the U20 Six Nations and Junior World Cup, hopefully get a bit of a break and then be ready to kick on.”