Head coach Peter Smyth is hoping his Ireland Under-18 Schools squad can get the win that their performances have deserved when they play Scotland in the final round of the U-18 Six Nations Festival on Easter Sunday.
Another big squad effort yesterday saw them improve further on their solid first round display against France, but a tight result went against them again as festival hosts England clung on for a 24-17 win at Sixways Stadium. The tournament moves on to Gloucester’s Kingsholm ground for the closing matches this weekend.
Twenty players have stepped up to make their Ireland U-18 Schools debuts in recent days, adding to the six returnees from last year’s festival in Wales. The key focus is on getting them used to the challenges of age-grade international rugby and preparing, playing and recovering for three games against elite opposition in a short window.
With the players very much hitting their markers in terms of performance against the highly-rated English side, Smyth said afterwards: “We’re incredibly satisfied that we achieved our potential. I thought the boys were tremendous from start to finish, giving absolutely everything they had. Age-grade international rugby is all about very fine margins.
“This tournament is about putting the boys in this environment and trying to get the best out of themselves. Okay, they were on the wrong end of the scoreline but that’s not what it is all about for us.
We dominated large parts of the game. I thought the work-rate of our forwards and some of the skills from our backs were tremendous and we’re delighted with the performance. We felt against France that we needed improvements, particularly in the way we started the game, and we got a lot of those improvements today so roll on Scotland.
“The whole squad of 26 handled themselves excellently against a very powerful England team and the great thing about this competition is that we have another international in four days’ time. We have come very, very close twice and we just want to improve on a few things now and get another positive performance.”
Twice Ireland looked to have piled over the English try-line early in the second half, only for the efforts to be ruled out. Coleraine Grammar School prop Oscar Egan had bagged their first half opener, Garbally College’s Oisin McCormack charged over midway through the second period, while Chris Cosgrave of St. Michael’s College kicked both conversions and a penalty.
Such are the vagaries of age-grade rugby and the differing rates of player and team development, these results are often reversed within the following year or two. The current crop of Under-18s only have to look to Ireland’s 2019 Under-20 Six Nations Grand Slam winners, who lost 39-20 to England at U-18 level in 2017.
Absorbing a defeat and bouncing back are all part of the learning process according to the Ireland head coach, who added: “They are 18-years-old and at the start of their rugby journey which is never linear, it has its ups and downs. Sometimes you win games when you shouldn’t and at other times you lose games that you could potentially have won.”
Smyth had a special word for his captain Alex Kendellen, one of a handful of players who have played every minute of the tournament so far. The PBC Cork back rower has quickly put last month’s Munster Schools Senior Cup final heartbreak behind him to lead Ireland in impressive fashion during the opening two rounds.
“I don’t like singling out players but our captain Alex at number 8 has been absolutely tremendous. He left every piece of himself on that pitch and has led our squad superbly well. He’s done a great job on behalf of the squad,” said Smyth, who is assisted by Mossy Lawler and Colm McMahon.
“He’s played the full 80 minutes in both games (against France and England) and is starting to tire now but represents all the qualities, values and behaviours we are looking for. He has led from the front again today.”