“A pretty disappointing start,” was the Connacht lock’s summation of the opening two rounds of his side’s Six Nations, which has so far delivered a loss at home to Wales and defeat in France. Add in the four defeats racked up after last year’s opening win over Italy, and it makes for six in a row in this tournament for the U20s under Nigel Carolan, and it inevitably raises a familiar debate about the merits of results and performance at this grade.
Feeding players through to the senior provincial and national ranks is the priority, but a string of reversals over two seasons is hard to ignore, even as coach Carolan continues the admirable policy of giving players freedom to express themselves within a general structure.
It is a notoriously difficult balance to strike, especially for players with limited exposure to, and experience of, rugby at such a high physical and mental pitch, but Claffey insists the problems lie with fixable individual errors rather than systematic fault.
“We have an initial game plan and like to play heads-up rugby off that,” he said. “We much prefer that to having to go here and do that. It lets you be a real rugby player, which is a great freedom to have. We’re not struggling with that, it is just bad mistakes and not being focused at key times.” More is required tonight against an English side that suffered a surprise opening loss in Scotland, but one which has boasted an exceptionally capable scrum against both the Scots and the Italians, and an outfit that has also dominated possession each time.
Ireland’s pack fared well enough against an impressive French unit in the scrum, but they will need to improve a lineout that was taken apart in Narbonne, and Carolan has made five changes to the XV, with most brought about by players succumbing to, or recovering from, injury.
Stephen Kerins steps in at nine for John Poland while Jack Power returns to full-back after injury. Likewise Will Connors, is fit and returns to the back row while Conan O’Donnell slots back in to the front row after being relegated to the bench against France. Greg Jones for the unavailable Max Deegan at No. 8 completes the switches. England demonstrated clear improvements in round two and they will hope to ape Wales and France who were both clinical in punishing those mistakes which Claffey and his colleagues have pinpointed.
M Malins (Saracens); G Perkins (Saracens), J Marchant (Harlequins), C Thacker (Leicester ), O Thorley (Gloucester); M Protheroe (Gloucester), M Green (Yorkshire Carnegie); T West (Wasps), J Singleton (Worcester), W Stuart (Wasps); H Taylor (Worcester), G Nott (Sale); A White (Harlequins), S Smith (Worcester), C Chick (Newcastle).
C Langdon (London Irish), J Pope (Sale Sharks), B Keast (Exeter), S South (Harlequins), J Willis (Wasps), J Shillcock (Worcester), J Simmonds (Exeter), P Odogwu (Leicester).
J Power (UCD/Leinster); H Keenan (UCD/Leinster), S Daly (Cork Con/Munster), J O’Brien (UCD/Leinster), C O’Brien (Clontraf/Leinster); J McPhillips (QUB/Ulster), S Kerins (Sligo/Connacht); A Porter (UCD/Leinster), A McBurney (Ballymena/Ulster,) C O’Donnell (Sligo/Connacht); P Claffey (Galwegians/Connacht), J Ryan (Lansdowne/Leinster); C Gallagher (Sligo/Connacht), W Connors (UCD/Leinster), G Jones (UCD/Leinster).
S Fenton (Young Munster/Munster), J Bollared (TCD/Leinster), B Betts (Munster/Young Munster), S O’Connor (Cashel/Munster), K Brown (Shannon/Munster), J Poland (Con/Munster), B Connon (N’castle), M Byrne (Terenure/Leinster).