Declan Kidney coached an Ireland side that featured Donncha O’Callaghan and Adrian Flavin in the pack, plus Paddy Wallace and Kieran Campbell in the backs, as they saw off the USA, South Africa — after some penalty shoot-out controversy — and Argentina before beating hosts France 18-0 in the final.
A certain Brian O’Driscoll lined out in the centre; little more than a year later he was featuring for the Ireland senior team in the 1999 World Cup, the start of one of world rugby’s most decorated careers.
At a time when Irish rugby fans are wondering what the national side’s midfield will look like without O’Driscoll — a number of candidates are auditioning there on the end-of-season tour to Argentina right now — an Irish underage side punching above their weight are again providing hope for the future.
Mike Ruddock’s troops are preparing for an unprecedented Junior World Cup semi-final clash against England at QBE Stadium in Auckland tomorrow morning (6.05am, live on TG4), and another man wearing 13 has been this year’s breakthrough star so far.
UCD man Garry Ringrose has impressed across the board with his distribution skills, quick feet and nose for the try-line. He’s a year young for this level too and has impressed Ruddock.
“He’s got exceptional feet, great acceleration off the mark, he’s a very talented boy. He kicks goals as well… so he’s got a big future in front of him,” said the coach.
In 2012, it was JJ Hanrahan who announced himself on the world stage as Ireland finished in a best-ever fifth position, and he was Ireland’s first IRB Junior World Player of the Year nominee. 2013 would surely have been Robbie Henshaw’s year to shine at the JWC, had he not had the minor distraction of being brought straight into the senior squad instead.
Ireland have certainly started to expedite the movement of players from U20 to senior level — perhaps not long before time.
Since the introduction of the JWC tournament in 2008, Ireland have graduated just 15 players who have partaken in that tournament to the senior set-up, with 28-cap scrum-half Conor Murray the most experienced. Only South Africa (11) have less, while Australia (25), Wales (24) and England (21) have brought significantly more through.
There are myriad reasons for this, from innate conservatism compared to the likes of Australia to the longevity of O’Driscoll, Ronan O’Gara and Paul O’Connell, carefully managed centrally by the IRFU’s central contracts system rather than being flogged in England or France. It was a similar story for Brian Kerr’s Ireland U20 soccer side in 1997.
He guided them to third in the Fifa Youth World Championships, which remains Ireland’s best performance at any grade, but just two players — Damien Duff and Glen Crowe — went on to earn senior international caps, compared to 10 from the Argentina side that ultimately ended their dream.
This year’s U20 crop hadn’t been flagged as World Cup contenders, having had an average Six Nations campaign before losing forward talismen Dan Leavy and Sean O’Brien to injury. But having reached a first semi-final, they will certainly have caught Joe Schmidt’s attention, not to mention the provincial academy bosses.
They face an unenviable task against a powerful English side who notched 15 tries in winning all their pool games against Argentina, Australia and Italy.
But for Ringrose and the rest of these young men hoping to eke out a future in the professional game, there are few better platforms to make a statement.
C Kelleher (Lansdowne/Leinster); C Gaffney (Galwegians/Connacht), G Ringrose (UCD/Leinster), D Goggin (Young Munster /Munster), A Wootton (Garryowen/Munster); R Byrne (UCD/Leinster), N McCarthy (UCD/Leinster); P Dooley (Lansdowne/Leinster), M Abbott (Cork Constitution/Munster), R Burke (Cork Constitution/Munster); S Gardiner (Lansdowne/Leinster), R Molony (UCD/Leinster); P Timmins (UCD/Leinster), F Taggart (Belfast Harlequins/ Ulster), J O’Donoghue (ULBohemians/Munster) (capt).
D Donnellan (UCD/Leinster), D Coulson (Lansdowne/Leinster), O Heffernan (Lansdowne/Leinster), D Moloney (Cork Constitution/Munster), R Moloney (Buccaneers/Connacht), R Foley (Lansdowne/Leinster), C McKeon (Lansdowne/Leinster), H Brewer (Terenure/Leinster).