Towering Munster Academy lock Thomas Ahern will make his Ireland U20 debut in today’s final Pool B clash with Italy at the World Rugby U20 Championship in Santa Fe (kick-off 2.30pm Irish time — live on eir Sport 1).
The 6ft 7in former Youghal, Dungarvan and Waterpark youths player, who only switched from the back-line to the second row in early 2017, gets his chance after being a water carrier and an unused replacement for Ireland’s first two games at the tournament.
Ahern forms a new lock pairing with Ryan Baird, who was cleared to play by an independent World Rugby disciplinary committee following his red card against Australia.
No further sanction was imposed as detailed analysis found there had not been direct contact between Baird’s arm and the head of Australia’s Will Harrison, and that the tackle had slipped up from the shoulder.
Baird’s availability offers a timely boost as injury-ravaged Ireland look to bounce back from that crushing 45-17 defeat to Australia, which leaves them with only a very slim chance of making the semi-finals as the best-placed runners-up.
As well as racking up a big score against Italy, they will need other results to go their way.
Mindful of how tough Italy can be as opponents, especially after they lost by just a single point to England, head coach Noel McNamara said:
“Italy are a very good side and they showed that against England on Saturday. They have been consistently competitive at this tournament over the last number of years. The players are excited about the opportunity to get back out to play, and the focus is entirely on delivering a performance.
We were proud of the effort against Australia given the circumstances, and the character they showed throughout the contest has to be commended. We’ve no doubt that they will dig deep again (today).
With four players suffering tournament-ending injuries in Argentina, including John Hodnett (knee) and Stewart Moore (shoulder), and a six-man injury list beforehand, headed by Grand Slam-winning captain David Hawkshaw, Ireland’s selection options have been severely impacted.
But McNamara can still field a strong side, skippered this time by ever-present centre Liam Turner.
He is joined by the versatile Cormac Foley in midfield, Jake Flannery reverts to full-back, and fellow Munster starlet Ben Healy links up at half-back with Connacht Academy scrum half Colm Reilly.
Forwards Ahern, John McKee, Michael Milne and Ciaran Booth join Reilly in making their first national U20 starts, with loosehead Josh Wycherley the mainstay of the pack. Ulster’s Azur Allison to fit to resume at number 8, but fellow back rower Ronan Watters is still following the return-to-play protocols after his head injury against Australia.
There are potential debuts off the bench for newly-arrived injury replacements Aaron O’Sullivan, Max O’Reilly, Luke Clohessy and David Ryan, the latter a younger brother of Leinster and Ireland star James. Clontarf and Leinster prop Charlie Ward has recovered from the hamstring injury which sidelined him out last Saturday.
Ireland have won two of their three previous World U-20 Championship meetings with Italy — in Wales in 2008 (9-6) and South Africa in 2012 (41-12) — but suffered a 22-21 pool loss to the Azzurrini during the 2017 tournament in Georgia. McNamara’s youngsters scored four tries and won 34-14 in Rieti during this year’s Six Nations.
Flannery, squad captain Charlie Ryan, Angus Kernohan and Turner have played all 160 minutes of the campaign so far for Ireland, who have conceded 20 turnovers in their first two matches — the joint-lowest in the Championship along with Wales.
Jake Flannery (Shannon/Munster); Angus Kernohan (Queen’s University/Ulster), Liam Turner (Dublin University/Leinster) (capt), Cormac Foley (St. Mary’s College/Leinster), Rob Russell (Dublin University/Leinster); Ben Healy (Garryowen/Munster), Colm Reilly (Buccaneers/Connacht); Josh Wycherley (Young Munster/Munster), John McKee (Old Belvedere/Leinster), Michael Milne (UCD/Leinster), Thomas Ahern (Shannon/Munster), Ryan Baird (Dublin University/Leinster), David McCann (Banbridge/Ulster), Ciaran Booth (Sale Sharks/IQ Rugby), Azur Allison (Ballymena/Ulster).
Declan Adamson (Clontarf/Leinster), Thomas Clarkson (Dublin University/Leinster), Charlie Ward (Clontarf/Leinster), Dylan Tierney-Martin (Corinthians/Connacht), Charlie Ryan (UCD/Leinster), Niall Murray (Buccaneers/Connacht), Luke Clohessy (Shannon/Munster), Craig Casey (Shannon/Munster), Jonathan Wren (Cork Constitution/Munster), David Ryan (UCD/Leinster), Aaron O’Sullivan (UCD/Leinster), Max O’Reilly (Dublin University/Leinster).b