The Stadio Zaffanella in Viadana lay close to empty and torpid under the June sun as Ireland’s U20s eked out a narrow win over Scotland to finish seventh at the 2015 Junior World Cup.
It was a nondescript end to a so-so season for the Wolfpuppies who lost three of their Six Nations games before exiting the annual global get-together in Italy.
Irish rugby does not, as a rule, blood young players with alacrity at senior Test level and the majority of those competing that day would have clocked off for the summer suspecting the path to the top still required a deep breath and a mountain of steps yet to climb.
Not for two of them. Within 18 months both Garry Ringrose and Joey Carbery had made their senior Irish debuts, Ringrose with 80 minutes against Canada last November and Carbery with that impressive 20-minute debut against New Zealand the week before.
With professionalism over two decades old and systems and structures embedded and improved annually, players are availing of better coaching and support services and the result has been a shortening of the gap between potential and end product.
Nigel Carolan, the Ireland U20s coach, would equate the game at that level to the bottom end of a Guinness PRO12 game in terms of intensity if not physicality so it is no wonder Ringrose and Carbery are merely pack leaders rather than special cases in making the leap seem easier. Andrew Porter has featured in Leinster’s front row just a year out of the grade.
Making the grade itself is, in some ways, the great leap now. Players who scratch around for a bit of game time in the AIL, or with their provincial ‘A’ side, suddenly find themselves thrust into an arena where the intensified spotlight from media and TV matches the focus demanded by coaches and teammates.
“It’s just the intensity, the speed of the game, the speed of the breakdown,” said Carolan. “Particularly playing three of five games on 4G (pitches). It’s a rapid game compared to what they’re used to.
“When your lungs are burning and there’s a high level of expectation it’s trying to deal with all those variables and keeping a cool head and staying focused.”
And all this with a team that has little time to gel and bond.
A few gatherings and games in recent months aside, this year’s crop only gathered for the Six Nations last week in Sandymount - the Aviva Stadium hovering above them in the background a reminder of just how close they now stand to the ultimate international honour.
Players are still encouraged to use their initiative but the day-to-day menu has been filleted down to a concentration on the basics of collision skills, tackling, ball-carrying and breakdown with the realisation that less can sometimes mean more. The rewards can be great and not just individually.
Last year’s class turned around a season that started with two defeats in the Six Nations by winning their next three, beating New Zealand in the World Cup and making it all the way to final where England proved too strong.
Out-half Johnny McPhillips is just one of three members of that squad back this time around as the opening game against Scotland this evening approaches and his advice to the new boys looking to make an impression is straightforward.
“Confidence is gained from clarity in the sense that if you know what your job is and you out your all into the team then you have nothing else to worry about.
“Just get that confidence from knowing what is required of you so you are not letting the boys down. Once you buy into that, you can enjoy it.
“When I look back at the Six Nations and the World Cup last year I think I should have enjoyed the Six Nations a lot more because once you enjoy it you become more confident and you put less pressure on yourself and that helps be the best out of yourself and the team ultimately.”
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