Noel McNamara’s U20 tyros are within touching distance of history

Noel McNamara’s U20 tyros are within touching distance of history

For most of us, the realisation that Irish rugby could have a special generation of raw talent on its hands has dawned slowly over the course of this U20s Six Nations campaign.

Not for Noel McNamara.

The head coach knew that his chargers were destined to do great things together two years ago and it wasn’t a hunch he kept to himself.

Fifteen of the 29 players used in this year’s thrilling campaign were members of a squad coached, just as this one is, by McNamara when they took part in a six-team International Series U18 tournament in Wales in 2017.

Ireland finished that blitz with an epic 38-36 defeat of the previously unbeaten hosts on a 4G pitch at Ystrad Mynach in Caerphilly.

Two Angus Kernohan tries sealed a win that was made more memorable by the fact that they had trailed by 17 at the break.

“We scored 19 points in the second-half and won by two,” said McNamara ahead of their return to Wales today for a game that could clinch a Grand Slam. “I said on the pitch at the end of the game ‘Boys, you will win an U20s Six Nations’.

“And, in fairness to them, they backed it up. That could have gone either way! I mentioned it to them at the start of the year and the only one who remembered was Liam Turner. They have been a group who have always had that ability.”

Spellbound crowds at Musgrave Park have seen that first-hand in recent weeks with the defeats of England and France.

They pitch up in Colwyn Bay this evening with the championship already in the bag and a shot at even more history awaiting.

They have come this far with an incredibly settled side and one that has banked considerable time together with various national sides.

McNamara likes to see it as living proof of how the Irish system’s pathways are working but this is, nonetheless, a special crew.

The Clare native sees that every day. Off the pitch and on.

Small details stand out. When the squad went for pizza on Monday their coach was taken aback at the noise levels they generated in the restaurant as players chatted away throughout. There was nobody buried in their phones. Kids these days, eh?

“It’s a group that just really get on with each other and they really enjoy each other’s company. That has been a significant factor.”

Coaches create cultures and establish norms but McNamara insists that none of this is down to anything he or his staff have engineered. This is a team whose bond has developed organically and they have displayed a maturity beyond their years.

The celebrations when they clinched the title last Friday amounted to little more than pizza (again) while watching a recording of their victory.

There is a clear sense of more work to be done and they don’t shy away from the magnitude of what it is they chase.

Leinster senior coach Stuart Lancaster took a video session with them after the round three defeat of Italy and implored them not to hide from the fact that Grand Slam – a first for Irish rugby at this grade since 2007 and only the second ever – was within their grasp.

McNamara says merely that a Grand Slam isn’t something of which they are “afraid” and he answers the reminder that no Irish U20 side has won in the Principality in a dozen years with the fact that they “found solutions” in Cork (twice), Galashiels and Rieta.

There is also a steely confidence that others will be found tonight.

“We’ve never won in Colwyn Bay actually as an U20s team,” he adds. “The one thing I will say about this group is they’re motivated by challenges. They’re certainly not diminished by it. It’s something we’ve already spoken about, is that record. If you look at something that’s never been done, you look at it another way. What an opportunity! It is an opportunity for them to write another little chapter of history and set the bar a little bit higher for next year’s team.”

That bigger picture remains in focus. Even now. With a Grand Slam at their fingertips. The brief of U20s coach demands a delicate balance. The presence of games on live TV ensures that too many losses can be dissected with all the tenderness of a chainsaw and yet those in charge know that developing as many players as possible can’t be shunted to the side either.

The measure of this group isn’t whether we win a Six Nations or win a Grand Slam, the assessment of the group will be in 10 years. This is a development team and it’s two-fold, we want to be competitive and learn to win. 

I was looking at the 2007 (Grand Slam) team and one of their best players was arguably David Pollock. Unfortunately, his career was cut short by injury and (the focus is on) trying to equip them to deal with that as well, deal with the disappointment.

Not just yet, you’d hope.

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