New campaign, new batch of players, but Connacht’s Cillian Gallagher feels the appearance by Ireland’s U20s in last year’s World Cup final has set a bar that this and future generations of talent should aspire to match.
One of only three players from the 2016 panel to return this time around, the Sligo forward was an ever-present during a Six Nations campaign that started with two defeats. Expectations were still low for the global event after three subsequent championship wins on the bounce.
Ireland made little of such low opinions, coming back from the dead to beat Wales, becoming the first Irish men’s team to defeat New Zealand, and going all the way to the decider, where England proved too strong.
“After what happened there maybe isn’t more expectation but there is definitely more of a spotlight on this team as a result of what we did last year,” said Gallagher. “Last year showed what we can do as a country. At the start of the year we weren’t really rated.
“I remember being in the airport on the way over to the World Cup and reading an article about each of the groups and what it said about us was... it spoke about one or two players to watch, but then it said that Ireland overall were bound to have a pretty dismal World Cup.
“That’s what it said. I only said it to one of the other lads but internally I was thinking, ‘This is what people think of us going in,’ and we had that bit of a chip on our shoulders… Once we got over Wales, that got us going, and that’s the way we will approach this Six Nations now.”
Truth be told, Gallagher has mixed feelings about his first year at the grade.
Though singled out for his size (17st 6lbs and 6’5” at the time), his skillset, and an ability to dig in at lock and blindside flanker, it all ended with two torn shoulder ligaments against Georgia and six months waiting for the joint to stitch itself back together.
Only five games have been banked since: One for Corinthians, two for Connacht in the B&I Cup, and another pair of warm-ups with the Irish U20s. It’s taken time for his body to re-adapt but his mental sharpness looks keener than ever.
Only just pipped for the role of captain by Leinster’s Jack Kelly, Gallagher speaks confidently and spreads his considerable frame over a sofa in the team hotel with a languid ease as he speaks and he displays a similar assuredness when discussing his comrades.
Ireland lack the beef of last year’s intake, one symbolised at the time by the gargantuan Andrew Porter at prop. The excitement this time rests on a back line which coach Nigel Carolan admits possesses something of an X factor.
“I know it has been said already, that we’re probably not as physically dominant as last year and from the outside looking in that could be true. But from what I have seen internally in camp we can be just as good. I don’t see why not.
“Scrum is the main thing that maybe looks to be weak to others but what I have seen so far is a lot of potential. Maybe physically we’re not as big in terms of stats and numbers but I can’t really see that being much of an issue.”
Ireland begin their U20 Six Nations campaign against Scotland at the Broadwood Stadium in Glasgow tomorrow night (8.30pm, live on RTÉ2).
J Kelly (Dublin University/Leinster, captain); J Larmour (St. Mary’s College/Leinster), G Mullin (UCD/Leinster), C Frawley (UCD/Leinster), C Hogan (Dublin University/Munster); J McPhillips (Ballynahinch/Ulster), J Stewart (Queen’s University/Ulster); J Conway (UL Bohemian/Munster), T McElroy (Lansdowne/Leinster), P Cooper (Belfast Harlequins/Ulster); F Wycherley (Young Munster/Munster), O Dowling (Lansdowne/Leinster); C Gallagher (Corinthians/Connacht), P Boyle (Lansdowne/Leinster), C Doris (St. Mary’s College/Leinster).
A Moloney (Shannon/Munster), R Mulvihill (UCD/Leinster), C Connolly (Dublin University/Leinster), J Regan (UCD/Leinster), M Rea (Queen’s University/Ulster), J Lyons (Young Munster/Munster), C Fitzgerald (Shannon/Munster), T O’Brien (UCD/Leinster)
Ireland U20 Six Nations Fixtures:
Scotland U20 v Ireland U20, Broadwood Stadium, Glasgow, 8.30pm.
Friday, February 10:
Italy U20 v Ireland U20, Stadio Enrico Chersoni, Prato, 6pm.
Friday, February 24:
Ireland U20 v France U20, Donnybrook Stadium, Dublin, 8pm.
Saturday, March 11:
Wales U20 v Ireland U20, Parc Eirias, Colwyn Bay, North Wales, 6.30pm.
Friday, March 17:
Ireland U20 v England U20, Donnybrook Stadium, 6pm.
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