The Ireland Under-20s may have begun their Six Nations campaign with a comprehensive 38-7 win over Scotland, but defence coach Denis Leamy is expecting a whole new challenge from Wales tonight.
The Welsh had a productive opening round victory of their own as Ioan Cunningham’s side overcame Italy with 15 points to spare, winning 23-8. Having watched that game in detail, Leamy believes the tournament hosts possess threats right across the park.
“They’re a good side, they had a good win against Italy,” he said, speaking ahead of the eagerly-awaited second round clash at Cardiff Arms Park (kick-off 8pm).
“I think they’ve a lot of very good players, to be fair. Just looking through their team, guys like Garyn Phillips who plays at loosehead. Harri Deaves who is their seven. He’s really, really good.
Their nine, Harri Williams. Joe Hawkins at 12 as well. Sam Costelow, the Scarlets 10. He’s really, really strong, a really good player.
“Similar to the Welsh senior team, they’ve a Polynesian number eight in Carwyn Tuipulotu. He’s a very, very big man. He’s really, really good on the go-forward.
“They’ve loads of players that we need to shut down and they’ve a really good system. They can go to width, they can go through you. They can go over you.
“It’s a challenge, but it’s brilliant. It has been a brilliant week and it has been really good in terms of trying to prep for this challenge and very, very enjoyable all in.”
While acknowledging there will always be areas that need improvement, there were several aspects of Ireland’s opening performance in Cardiff that pleased Leamy – the scrum, in particular.
The boys were fantastic up front. Temi (Lasisi), Ronan (Loughnane) and Sam (Illo), they did a great job and they’ve been pretty sore since. They really put in a massive shift and that’s where it is.
“That scrum is so important in the modern game. They gave us a brilliant platform, they did a brilliant job. Right across the pitch we had really good performances.
“I think everyone that got a run last weekend, they added to the jersey. They added to the performance. It’s great to see that.
“Lads coming in off the bench or ‘the finishers’, whatever way you want to describe them, really having an impact as well. It’s really good from our point of view as a coaching staff.”
Nonetheless, Loughnane is the only one of last week’s starting front row to be retained in the team to play Wales. Jack Boyle and Mark Donnelly have been drafted in at loosehead and tighthead prop respectively.
As Leamy explains, this is as much to do with the tight scheduling of the 2021 U-20 Six Nations as anything else.
“The feeling is, it’s a five-game series. It’s really, really tough. The boys haven’t played at any level of rugby really for 18 months. There’s a fatigue factor,” he explained.
“We’ve got to use a very strong squad as we see it, and we feel it’s a great opportunity for Jack Boyle and Mark Donnelly to come in and do really well. It’s about being sensible.
“It’s about protecting players as well and using the quality that we have. That’s really where we’re coming from. We’ve just got to spread our resources a little bit.
“You’re asking an awful lot of these players to go three games in-a-row, four games in-a-row. We believe in the squad and we believe in the players that we have in the squad, that we can go out and do a really good job.”
In addition to his coaching expertise, Leamy is able to bring his playing experience to bear on this crop of young players. A veteran of many Six Nations tournaments at senior level, he understands how important it was for Ireland to get off to a winning start last weekend.
“It’s huge, it really is huge. Going back to even my time, that first game is crucial. Getting out of the blocks and that feelgood factor,” insisted the Tipperary man.
“You’re away from home and you’re in hotels. You’re cooked up a little bit. It just helps so much. It really does. It’s so important and to be fair, we went out (and did it).
“We’ve loads to work on as we said, but we put in a really good performance. I think we had an awful lot of feelgood factor off the back of that and it has allowed us to kick on now.
“It has allowed us to grow that confidence and to look forward. It’s really, really positive from our point of view.”
Although many say it cannot match the thrill of playing, Leamy has been thoroughly enjoying his time in the Richie Murphy-led U-20 coaching set-up. Like the squad themselves, he is still looking for ways to develop in his own role, adding:
It has been fantastic. It has been unbelievable. I started working with the Leinster Academy two years ago and it has just been a great journey.
“It has been a great development in terms of my journey and becoming a better coach. Becoming a better teacher.
“Being around these guys and this environment, it brings me back to when I was playing. It’s magic, it really is.”