Ireland Under-20 coach Eric Elwood is bracing his players for a very physical challenge from the French at Dubarry Park on Friday (kick-off 7.30pm).
Elwood, who himself played 35 times for Ireland and figured in two World Cups, is still on a high following his young side’s dramatic 17-15 win over Wales last Friday.
“We found ourselves 15 points down early on but full credit to the lads, they never stopped trying and when we scored just before half-time, it was a great boost for us,” Elwood told IrishRugby.ie.
“Felix Jones, who scored our two tries, had a superb game and I was also very impressed with the work of our captain David Pollock. He made 20 carries and 24 tackles in an immense performance.”
And he also had high praise for his centres – Darren Cave and Aidan Wynne – and his forward pack.
For Elwood, the win in Swansea, in some way, was a touch of history repeating itself. He made his Ireland debut against Wales in Cardiff in March 1993, when the Irish won, and fourteen years later, he was back in the Principality to get his international coaching career off to a winning start.
The Galway man went on to make 34 more Test appearances during which he scored 296 points, without ever scoring a try. He kicked 68 penalties, landed 43 conversions and dropped two goals in a great career which continued until his final game against Argentina at the World Cup, when Ireland famously lost 28-24 to the Pumas in Lens.
In his 35 games Ireland won fourteen matches, drew one, and lost the others.
Two months after his debut against Wales, Young Munster won the All-League title with the crucial try being scored by flanker Ger Earls whose son, Keith, shone in the win against the Welsh last Friday.
But this is his first season as a coach with a national team, and he admitted to having nerves before kick-off in Swansea. “Yeah, I was nervous before the start. It was a nervouness for the players and I wanted to calm them down,” he admitted.
Staring defeat in the face at the interval, what did he say to his players? “I just told them to try and hold onto the ball more and I suggested to them that Wales would not last the pace and that if we kept possession we would catch them.
“In fact, Wales did tire and we went from strength to strength.”
This week’s game against the French will, he believes, be “a very stern test.”
Elwood insisted: “It is not generally recognised that it is a French Under-21 team we’re playing, while, apart from Italy, the rest of the nations are fielding U-20 sides. “France have an excellent coach and they won the World Championship last summer. They will try to be very physical and they beat up Italy (in their first game).
“They will try that against us too, and there will also be a type of Toulouse-style running rugby from them,” he predicted.
“Our strength will be in trying to play a fast moving game against them.”
Elwood’s squad were back in training on Tuesday, but the coach does not believe in doing lengthy sessions on the pitch.
“Our training sessions last about an hour and 15 minutes. We don’t do these two and three-hour sessions on the pitch, but we do have a lot of squad meetings and analysis.” Assembling an Under-20 squad is totally different from other squads. Elwood explained: “Many of the players were recommended to us from the four provincial High Performance people and we also picked up a few ourselves.
“We had four camps ahead of last Friday, starting in November. We had another in January and we played a number of friendly games against club sides.”
Being a Connacht man through and through, Elwood is naturally delighted that this week’s game and the forthcoming clash with England are being held at Dubarry Park, the home of Buccaneers RFC.
“I used to love to come to Dubarry Park as a player with Galwegians to beat Buccaneers,” he joked.
But he believes that support for the game in the midlands is growing all the time. “We had 5,000 at a game here last season and if we can get that number – and maybe another thousand – for the French game it would generate a great atmosphere and would be a big boost to the players for what will be a major task.”
Elwood will be at Croke Park for Sunday’s historic first rugby international at the home of GAA. “I played there as a young lad, with my club which used to be known as Mervue,” he revealed. “It promises to be a fantastic occasion on Sunday.”