Ireland Under-19 coach Charlie McAleese is confident his charges can make their mark at the 2007 IRB U-19 World Championship which begins with the opening ceremony in Belfast next Wednesday.
The Irish U-19s, sponsored by PricewaterhouseCoopers, are in good spirits, according to McAleese, as the countdown really begins towards their pool stage opener against Australia at Ravenhill tomorrow week (Thursday, April 5, kick-off 7.30pm).
“I have seen something special developing and it’s what you can detect in many underage squads,” admitted McAleese, who oversaw Ireland’s fifth place finish at last year’s tournament in Dubai.
“We have picked out 26 players, so the worry of selection is out of it. There is a closeness building and there always will be in Irish underage sides, and that’s always worth a couple of more percent to us.
“A tournament as high profile as this gives players a good platform. It allows academies in the provinces to select players for the academies next year.
“Academy directors will see players perform in a highly pressurised, high quality situation. The esteem of the Under-19 World Championship has risen dramatically within Ireland and around the world.
“It’s a World Cup on an island where rugby is booming and that can only work well for us,” he added.
So can this year’s crop build on what Ireland achieved twelve months ago in Dubai?
“Last year’s competition gave us a new insight into the standards that are expected and demanded in this competition. While we’re expecting high standards from ourselves, we have to be realistic as well,” McAleese explained.
“We will prepare as well as we can. We will go in with high hopes. The huge factor of hosting the World Cup and of having the home-base of support behind us is another added string to our bow. We’ll be confident of acquitting ourselves well in the tournament.”
Looking at their pool stage opponents – defending champions Australia, ninth seeds Scotland and the eighth-ranked South Africans – the Irish youngsters will have some tough battles ahead of them.
But McAleese is confident his players can rise to the challenge, adding: “The difficulty, particularly with two Southern Hemisphere sides, is getting access. I felt our analysis of the opposition last year was good and gave us a strong understanding of their strengths and weaknesses going into each game because our defensive measures worked very well in Dubai.
“Obviously as the tournament gets up and running we see more of the opposition teams. We won’t get to see Australia as they are first up, but again I like to think they’re not too sure of what we’re up to either.
“There is also a danger of many people overlooking Scotland. The Scots, like ourselves and like all Celtic teams, are often at their best when they’re backs are to the wall.
“I respect Scottish rugby and their ability to play all over the field. We certainly will not be overlooking them and will treat the Scots with every bit of respect as we do to the other teams we will play,” said the former Ulster mentor.
“It’s a challenging group, but these one-year tournaments where they are based on the previous year’s seeding can throw up tough groups. South Africa, having slipped down the rankings last year, are seen as one of the weaker seeds in 2007.
“That’s the luck of the draw in these one-year tournaments. We look forward to that challenge and if we can get off to good start, get the momentum building and the support behind us, sometimes you can overcome your difficulties.”