The dust has barely settled on the 2009 RBS Under-20 6 Nations Championship, but already the Ireland players are back beavering away with the clubs and provinces. We caught up with Ireland U-20 coach Allen Clarke to get his thoughts on the campaign and preparations for June’s IRB Junior World Championship.
Three penalty goals from out-half Andrew Burke and a dogged display from the forwards helped Ireland to a 9-6 win over Wales last Friday in their final game of the 2009 RBS Under-20 6 Nations.
Burke’s 23rd-minute penalty success was the last score of an attritional game and coach Allen Clarke was happy to see his side pull through, thanks mainly to their admirable work ethic and determined defending.
“That was winning ugly. We’re a much better side than that,” Clarke said after the Llanelli encounter.
“I think you saw two nervy sides (tonight) who didn’t want to lose the game as opposed to go forward to win the game. We left a couple of opportunities out there, as did Wales.
“But all credit to this group. They’ve stuck at it, they work hard for one another.
“There are a lot of improvements we can make to our game and the next nine weeks are going to be critically important in terms of our fitness work in preparation for the Junior World Championship in June.
“There’s a huge amount of areas to improve upon. Our pack were very solid (tonight), I thought we were very aggressive around the fringes, made good go-forward around the fringes.
“We’d just like to play a little bit more with the ball in hand.
“It came down to not wanting to lose the game, being afraid to make the mistake but that’s something we’ll need to address for the Junior World Championship.”
Clarke singled out replacement prop Paddy McAllister for the try-saving he put in on Welsh out-half David Langdon just moments after coming on.
“(That tackle) epitomises the group. It was a wonder tackle by a prop who has just come onto the field. A massive contribution,” he said.
“It means that we’ve had a satisfactory if not better season – four wins out of five.
“I suppose at the start of the season, if you had been setting a target, we’d have taken that. You want to win every game but realistically we’d have taken that.
“However, there is a degree of frustration that we did leave one out there in Scotland where we didn’t perform.”
Level on eight points with the Irish, France took the title on scoring difference but Clarke was not too downbeat about missing out on silverware.
“It’d be great for the players to have something to show for it at the end, but we’ll savour the victories.
“This is all part of a process of identifying players who can kick on into the professional game, so it’s more than just a Six Nations programme.
“It’s about preparation for the Junior World Championship and identifying players for the future and there’s certainly players in our changing room who have got big futures ahead of them.”
The plan for the players in the lead-up to the Junior World Championship in Japan has been well mapped out, with plenty of co-ordination between Clarke’s management team and the clubs and provinces.
“We’ll have the players together again for the last week in April. We’ll have a four-day camp and then we’ll have them for a couple of days in preparation for a game against Scotland, which is a pre-Junior World Championship game.
“We’ll be looking for a reaction there in terms of that performance against Scotland last week.
“The nine weeks, they’re going to be in their academy structures, provincially they’ll be going through their fitness regimes.
“They’ll be back with their clubs as well and the clubs have been fantastic in terms of how they’ve looked after the players and assisted with this campaign.”
With the right structures in place, the Irish Under-20s will be looking to round off the season on a high with some strong performances in Japan.
In addition, the recent announcement that PricewaterhouseCoopers are extending their sponsorship of the Ireland underage squads is a timely boost for the players and coaches involved at U-20 level.
Clarke, the former Ulster and Ireland hooker, admitted: “It’s absolutely fantastic. The way PricewaterhouseCoopers articulated their support for age-grade rugby just shows that they recognise the brand of young rugby players coming through in Ireland.
“It’s fantastic for Irish rugby to be associated with such a prestigious company.”