McNamara wary of ‘massive challenge’ from France

Ireland U20 head coach Noel McNamara has moved to dismiss the notion that France’s erratic away form gives his side the upper hand for tonight’s Six Nations showdown at Musgrave Park (kick-off 7.15pm).

The Charlie Ryan-led Irish remain in the hunt for top honours in this year’s tournament and will also be aiming for a fourth consecutive home success over Les Bleus at this grade.

A comprehensive Round Two defeat to England in Exeter leaves France four points adrift of their pace-setting hosts, but McNamara and his squad aren’t taking anything for granted.

“If you look at them over the course of the last five years; they finished first, second, second, second, and first in the Six Nations. It’s a pretty enviable record, to be honest about it,” the Clare man said.

“Traditionally people would have felt that French teams don’t necessarily travel as well away, but they have had some pretty compelling performances away from home in the U20s Six Nations. We are expecting a massive challenge.

“We know that if we are not at our best, it probably won’t be good enough. Equally, we fully believe that if we are at our best, we will be.”

Ryan will captain the team at second row in the absence of knee injury victim David Hawkshaw — who is replaced at inside centre by Cork Constitution’s Sean French. The Irish starting line-up is otherwise unchanged, with Ulster starlet Angus Kernohan retaining his place alongside Munster duo Jake Flannery and Jonathan Wren in the back three.

Impressive wins thus far against England, Scotland, and Italy have put Ireland on the verge of a first tournament triumph since 2010. Additionally, it is 12 years since their last U20 Grand Slam — when current senior internationals Cian Healy and Keith Earls were part of a highly-rated squad.

In spite of the anticipation that is beginning to build, however, McNamara doesn’t feel there is a need to quell the excitement within the camp.

The group are a good group. They have worked very hard over the last few weeks and they have given themselves an opportunity through that. It’s about them staying focused on the task ahead, which is France — and what a task. It’s a significant challenge.

“World champions, Six Nations champions. The lads have prepped well, had a good run out against the senior team in Belfast. If you don’t enjoy these kinds of challenges, then they really shouldn’t be involved.”

Having kickstarted their campaign with a comfortable 32-10 victory at the expense of Wales, France responded to the England setback by putting Scotland to the sword in round three (42-27). Given they are the tournament’s top-try scorers — 13 in three games — it is little surprise McNamara sees attacking threats from all angles.

“Obviously they have got last year’s World Player of the Year at No 8, Jordan Joseph. He has been earmarked as a significant threat. Their 10 is back again, [Louis] Carbonel, the right-winger [Vincent] Pinto has been a real threat over the course of the first couple of games. They have strength in the pack as well,” McNamara acknowledged.

“There are a number of guys who have Top 14 experience and that is coming to bear. It’s going to be frantic pace and energy from our boys. That’s where we are really going to challenge them, to see if they can live at that pace.”

After handing debuts to four players off the bench in the bonus-point win over Italy, McNamara has included uncapped lock Ryan Baird in his matchday squad for their latest trip to the Leeside.

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