The Ireland Under-20s (sponsored by PwC) entertain France at Musgrave Park tonight (kick-off 8pm), with les Bleuets always providing a stern test on the U-20 Six Nations stage.
Ireland have won five out of their last nine U-20 Six Nations encounters with France, and it is an extremely competitive rivalry that has produced some cracking games in recent years.
None more so than last season when Charlie Tector converted Ben Brownlee’s try right at the death to give Ireland a tense 17-16 win in Aix-en-Provence.
You have to go as far back as 2011 for the last time the France Under-20s won on Irish soil in the tournament, a trend Richie Murphy and his young squad hope will continue.
France survived a late scare during last week’s opening round to hold out for a 28-27 victory over Italy. It was a very physical clash in Treviso, with the respective packs going toe-to-toe.
Looking forward to hosting the French in front of a vocal Cork crowd, Ireland’s defence and lineout coach Willie Faloon is aware of the threats their opponents pose all over the pitch.
“It was a set-piece tussle,” he said of the Italy match. “There were limited opportunities for their backs to get involved, but you can see the danger and the threat in the French back-line and the ability of their back-three, as well as their forwards. They are big and will be physical.”
Big physical beasts are words you usually associate with French forwards throughout the years. They are known for breeding powerful youngsters at this level who try to impose themselves on the opposition.
However, on this occasion they will be up against an equally solid outfit, in what many are calling Ireland’s biggest Under-20 squad, in terms of size, in a very long time.
Faloon admits that this is a physically bigger team than maybe other Ireland Under-20 selections in recent times, but he reiterated that it is only a small factor in the grand scheme of things.
“I suppose in comparing to last year they are, even in the back five they are that bit bigger. France, I suppose, aren’t going to be any smaller than we are, so you’re still going to have to deal with that big physical threat.
“It’s still important that we’re playing the right options, that we are smart…like I think, with rugby, it’s the team that wants it more and really stands up to that physical test.
“It’s still important that we are looking for that best space and playing it early,” highlighted the former Ulster, Connacht and Ireland Wolfhounds flanker.
UCD second row Conor O’Tighearnaigh is one of only two returning players, alongside fellow forward James McNabney, who started last year’s nail-biting triumph in the south of France.
He has gone from being the baby of the group – at just 18 during the 2022 Grand Slam-winning run – to one of the squad’s most experienced players, having also featured in the U-20 Summer Series.
O’Tighearnaigh spoke this week about how much of a momentum builder that win over the French was given the fact that they have become such a powerhouse at this age grade, winning the last two World Rugby U-20 Championships in 2018 and 2019.
“Getting the win over them, especially in the manner that it was – that we were down and able to come back – it definitely gave us a bit of confidence to kick on,” he admitted.
Being one of the more senior players this time around brings added responsibility. For the current campaign, the Leinster prospect, who is involved with the province’s sub-Academy, is Ireland’s vice-captain and lineout caller.
The leadership role is one that O’Tighearnaigh takes in his stride, insisting: “It’s not massively different. I suppose last year you didn’t have the same amount of responsibility to be a leader, you could try copy the other lads and see what they’re doing here. Whereas this year you have to try and the set the example.
“I learned with the players last year who had played the year before, I learned a lot from them, and I’m trying my best to set an example for the younger lads. But it’s each to themselves, you have to control what you’re doing.
“The experience of the last twelve months, with the Under-20 Six Nations and Summer Series, and the training we do in Leinster, physically as a player, you’re bound to improve.
“I’ve hopefully come along a lot, and then the experiences of playing the games, playing the best teams in the world, France, South Africa, England, all of them, hopefully with the experiences and training I’ve had, I’ve come on a bit.”
With Murphy’s charges the reigning U-20 Grand Slam champions, that tag comes with a target on their backs. It is something the 6ft 7in lock believes they are embracing.
“That’s something that you want almost. It is what it is, it doesn’t really make a difference on the pitch, but you want to be looking to be the best team. Every game, you want the teams to be best prepared, have the best games possible.
“It’s a completely different team to last year, but if it’s just because we won last year, that’s something we have to embrace and use, to keep the momentum going, and that we know every team will be up for it when they’re playing us,” he added.