No AIL, no Ireland Under-20 success. Noel McNamara has stressed the importance of club rugby to the success of Ireland’s age-grade player pathway, as his side bids to continue the winning start to its Six Nations title defence.
Last Friday in Cork saw the class of 2020 pick up where the Grand Slam winners of 2019 signed off by sealing a bonus-point victory over an improving Scotland but the championship challenges come thick and fast and Wales are next up at Musgrave Park this Friday evening.
Yet head coach McNamara believes the conveyor belt of talent currently coming out of provincial academies could not succeed at international level without consistent exposure to Energia All Ireland League rugby.
Man of the match last Friday Jack Crowley, whose superb end-to-end solo try was one of two against the Scots in a fast-flowing 38-26 victory, has benefitted hugely from playing regularly at fly-half for AIL 1A league leaders Cork Constitution and McNamara also cited fellow try-scorer, Munster academy lock Tom Ahern’s outings for Shannon as providing the battle-readiness for his players to contribute in Six Nations campaign.
“The AIL, without it the 20s would be in serious, serious strife,” McNamara said.
“It’s an absolutely fantastic competition for young players. You look at every single one of them out there and every one of them has played consistently for their club, and not just played but performed.
“It’s challenging, playing against men and with men and it was interesting talking to (Scotland U20s head coach) Sean Lineen before the game, where they’ve introduced a Super Sixes in Scotland. So they’re actually trying to create a competition where they can bridge that gap for young players.
We’re lucky. We have it and we have some excellent coaches and a really really good level of competition so I’m hugely grateful for the competition and for what it does for young players.
If there is room for improvement in the current system it is the scope for better communication between the clubs and provinces, McNamara suggested, although he is already seeing progress in that area.
“I think there’s a good balance. I think communication is really important and that’s something that’s improving all the time but there’s no question, for forwards, for nines, for 10s, for everybody really, it’s hugely beneficial.
“You look at someone like Luis Faria there who came on in the second half. He’s been playing consistently with Trinity over the course of the last two years.
“You look at Joe McCarthy, who came on and I thought had a telling impact on the game when we were probably struggling a little bit for momentum he had a huge moment that led to the score. Joe has played every single AIL game for Trinity so far this year.
“So certainly for the development of our young players, for the development of our academy players, I can’t stress enough how important the AIL is and for us it’s about continuing to improve the level of communication and the season calendar I think is the key.”
McNamara warned supporters not to expect the Welsh to roll over for Ireland in Cork this Friday, despite their opening-round loss at home to Italy last Friday.
“I think understanding that Italy are very very good at this level is important. The first game, there’s always that unknown quantity and it was exactly the same for us so I’ve no doubt Wales will be better for the experience.
“They’ll be smarting from that, they don’t lose that often in Colwyn Bay so they’re certainly going to present us with a big challenge next Friday night, I’ve no doubt about that.”