Gus McCarthy is hoping he can follow in the footsteps of Reuben Crothers on Sunday by lifting the Under-20 Six Nations trophy and writing his name in the record books as an U-20 Grand Slam-winning captain.
The excitement is building for the Ireland Under-20s’ final round showdown England at Musgrave Park (kick-off 5pm), with Richie Murphy’s unbeaten side topping the table on 19 points, three ahead of France and four clear of England.
Knowing that their destiny is in their own hands, McCarthy and his team-mates are fully focused on the job at hand as they look to complete a clean sweep of Championship wins like Crothers’ 2022 squad did last year.
“We’re ironing out those finer details, just a few things to brush up on, where we think we can go after the English lads,” said the Ireland U-20 captain, who led the side to a record 82-7 win over Scotland in Glasgow last week.
“We’re just making sure we are in the right mindset. We’re feeling really good and everyone is excited for the weekend.”
Grand Slam-winning seasons are notoriously hard to come by at all levels. The Ireland U-20s (sponsored by PwC) have the rare opportunity to achieve the feat two years in a row, which says a lot about the talent coming up through the ranks.
It is a chance that this group of players are relishing as they look to stamp their own names in Irish rugby folklore. Ireland’s only previous U-20 Grand Slams came in 2007, 2019 and 2022.
“We’re not looking to go for a draw and still win the Championship, we really are going for the Grand Slam on Sunday and I think we are good enough, if we perform well and go like the way we believe we can,” insisted UCD hooker McCarthy.
It is as if these final round face-offs were written in the stars, two Ireland teams aiming for respective Grand Slam titles against England on St. Patrick’s day weekend. Sunday in Cork is an occasion fitting of the hype, but the youngsters will be eager to keep their emotions in check.
There should be an electric atmosphere with a capacity 8,008-strong crowd present – a victory would extend Ireland’s winning streak at home in the U-20 Six Nations to 10 matches – but their skipper believes they cannot get too fired up.
“Although it’s for the Grand Slam, of course it’s just a normal game of rugby, so we just need to try and go out and perform and put our best foot forward. Hopefully things will fall in to place and we will get the win.”
The 19-year-old front rower is no stranger to captaining successful teams. Last year he led Blackrock College to their 70th Leinster Schools Senior Cup crown.
It was another big moment for him and a ‘big game experience’ that he thinks has stood to him in terms of stepping up as captain of the Ireland U-20s and leading them to the brink of Grand Slam glory.
“I’ve been captain of quite a few of my teams growing up – Junior Cup, Senior Cup – but this year I’ve been playing with UCD (in the Energia All-Ireland League) as a first year, so obviously the captains are older lads,” explained McCarthy.
“I’ve learned from them. Bobby Sheehan is our captain and I’ve been trying to take things from him, especially training with the older lads in Leinster as well. I’m trying to take tips and implement them into my leadership.”
He added: “That sort of experience of a cup final (with Blackrock) definitely gives you confidence. The experience will help me guide the lads towards the end goal. It will help me to stay calm too.
“Because although the Senior Cup is similar, it wouldn’t be quite as big of an occasion. But it kind of mimics it, the same kind of thing, all down to the line, to the last game sort of thing, win or lose.”
One of his Ireland U-20 front row colleagues, tighthead prop Paddy McCarthy, is somebody he is very familiar with. The pair played all the way up in Blackrock before donning the green jersey together.
Despite playing for rival clubs now, UCD and Dublin University, they have created a strong bond over the years, with McCarthy acknowledging: “We’re just so used to each other, whether it’s around the pitch or especially in the scrum.
“You know you can rely on somebody that you’ve known very well. He’d in Trinity and I’m with UCD – it’ll be great fun coming up against each other! We’re two very competitive lads.
“We can get up in each other’s face when we are up each other, but it’s great to have lads that you are used to around, and guys you can rely on.”
Irish Rugby has produced some excellent hookers over the years, few more so than current senior players Dan Sheehan, Bobby’s older brother, and Ronan Kelleher.
McCarthy cites the Leinster duo as two great examples for young players in the position, and he will be aiming to emulate their success in the years to come with both province and country.
Speaking about getting some advice from the Ireland senior hookers when the squads trained together recently, he revealed: “I spoke to a few of the lads, like Ronan and Dan about the scrum.
“They gave us good insight and a few tips because we were going up against them. It wasn’t really full scrums, but it was more about set-ups, which I found very helpful. I was very appreciative of them going out of their way to try and help us.”
Being the captain of any squad brings with it both an extra responsibility and an element of pride. To win the Grand Slam at their Cork fortress, in front of family and friends, would top off a hugely encouraging start to 2023.
“It would be a huge dream for me – a very proud day for myself and my family,” noted McCarthy.
“It would mean a whole lot, but I haven’t really thought too much about it. I’ve just been focusing on the game and on ourselves. Hopefully I can enjoy the game and we get the job done.”