The Ireland Under-20s (sponsored by PwC) continue their quest for U-20 Six Nations glory when they travel to Treviso to face their Italian counterparts on Friday night.
Richie Murphy’s youngsters currently sit second in the table on nine points, one behind leaders England whom they will face in the last round on St. Patrick’s weekend at Musgrave Park.
The Ireland U-20s have looked very impressive at times in their last couple of performances, already recording two bonus point wins – 44-27 away to Wales and a tight 33-31 victory over France in Cork.
Italy come into this game on the back of defeats to both England and France in the opening two rounds. Despite these recent results, Ireland know they will need to be at their best to continue their winning ways.
The teams met only a few months ago as part of the preparation for the U-20 Six Nations Championship. On that day, Italy came away from Castle Avenue with a 50-47 triumph.
A lot has been said about the strength of the Azzurrini forwards. Ireland Under-20 centre Hugh Cooney says they are aware of their reputation, but it is not something that phases them.
“There is a lot of focus on their pack,” he said. “They are big, big ball players but we have a big pack too. We definitely think that we can take them on, we have the quality.”
He thinks it is important to concentrate on their game and not to be too pack-focused.
“We don’t want to be pack-focused, forward-focused, it is just when the opportunity presents itself we will play.
“We want to play to the space, if that’s up front or out on the edges, we will play to where the space is,” explained the Clontarf clubman.
Cooney was part of that dominant Blackrock College side that powered their way to the Leinster Schools Senior Cup title just 11 months ago, alongside the front row pairing of Paddy and Gus McCarthy.
He admits that moving up to U-20 international level brings added responsibility and it is a real step up in intensity.
“It is definitely up a level from what I have experienced before. I played Ireland Under-19s last year, two Tests against France (in Belfast and Templeville Road). It’s a step up in terms of coaching and the amount of time we have put into it. I didn’t expect that.”
The defensive demands are much more challenging now than what it was when he playing at school. It is an area of the game that they, as a group, are continuously working and trying to improve on.
“Defensively it is not as easy as it was at school. We stepped up from the Wales game and the France game we were much better as a unit defending. A few little fixes and it showed,” he admitted.
Since leaving school, Cooney has been playing with Clontarf where he has got invaluable game-time with the reigning Energia All-Ireland League champions.
He has lined out on the right wing for most of his appearances with ‘Tarf. He prefers the outside centre role, but he is grateful for any place in the starting XV.
“I played wing back in school in about fourth year on the seniors, I have a bit of experience there so it is not too bad.
“I played one game in the centre for Clontarf. I don’t really mind, playing at that level with the seniors in the club is great rather than playing on the 20s.”
For Cooney and his Ireland team-mates, it is all about getting the job done on Friday night as they look to move a step closer to Championship silverware.