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Agnew Relishing Start Of Ireland U-20s’ French Adventure

Agnew Relishing Start Of Ireland U-20s’ French Adventure

After grasping his opportunity to become a mainstay of Ireland’s back row during the Under-20 Six Nations, Ballymena clubman Matthew Agnew is ready to make his mark on the World Rugby U-20 Championship in France.

Noel McNamara’s Ireland Under-20s begin their World Championship campaign tomorrow, renewing rivalries with tournament hosts France in Perpignan where they will be hoping to avenge February’s 34-24 Six Nations defeat.

Matthew Agnew missed out on selection for the Six Nations opener, but an injury to his Ulster colleague Aaron Hall led to his promotion for the second round visit of Italy to Donnybrook. Agnew came in at openside flanker for the 38-34 victory over the Azzurrini and held onto his place for the remainder of the Championship.

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The nature of his position means Agnew has little room for respite, but the Ulster sub-Academy forward was generally satisfied with his springtime performances, explaining: “I was sort of a fringe player going into the Six Nations, and then Aaron Hall luckily took an injury. Unluckily for him, luckily for me, against France!

“I got called in there and played the remaining four games, and being an out-and-out seven, you don’t really have anyone to come off the bench for you. I played 80 minutes in each of the last four games. I had a lot of time to improve myself and I thought I did well. The coaches, I think, thought I did well as well, so I was happy enough.”

While their Six Nations run ended in a comprehensive 48-15 final round loss to England, there were a number of positives for McNamara and his fellow coaches to take from the tournament. With 21 tries scored across the five matches, Ireland produced some eye-catching attacking rugby.

Despite acknowledging his best work is often done off the ball, Agnew feels he is well suited to the expansive style deployed by the Ireland Under-20 management team.

“I do enjoy the way we play. If there’s a game where I don’t touch the ball once, I’d be happy enough as long as I do my role, which is ruck and tackle. The way we play, it plays in my hands a wee bit, because we’ve got a good 6 and 8. Good ball carriers, so you don’t need another ball carrier in the back row.

“I let them carry and I’d be there at the ruck for them and in defence. I really enjoy defence, getting stuck in. It’s annoying when we have the ball the whole time. Don’t get to make any tackles, which is the frustrating bit!”

Joining McNamara on the coaching ticket for this World Rugby U-20 Championship are assistant coaches Ambrose Conboy and Paul O’Connell. Apart from the obvious qualities O’Connell possesses, Agnew has also been impressed by the Munster and Ireland legend’s attention to detail.

“He’s very intense, but he’s very specific in detail. We finish training and 10 minutes later he’ll be on the laptop re-watching it. He’ll be there all night. He’s someone you can go to and chat to as well. (He’s) got some good stories. He’s been good.”

Agnew will start at openside against the French tomorrow, with the Irish selection including three debutant backs in Tom Roche, Dan Hurley and Peter Sylvester, while Dublin University front rowers Dan Sheehan and Joe Byrne are poised to win their first caps off the bench. 

“We played them (France) in the Six Nations, so we sort of know what they’re about. We know who their key players would be, but we haven’t really spent time looking at much footage,” admitted Agnew at the recent squad announcement at PwC Ireland HQ. “They’ve probably changed their game up a lot. As I said, we would look at some specific areas, lineout, scrum, closer to the date, but not yet.”