Captain Gus McCarthy says the Ireland Under-20 squad (sponsored by PwC) are ‘not looking past England’ as their opening World Rugby Under-20 Championship match draws ever closer.
Saturday week (June 24) marks the start of the first World Rugby U-20 Championship since 2019 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and Ireland’s U-20 Grand Slam champions of 2023 face familiar opponents first up in England.
With some of his predecessors having missed out on the touring experience and getting to play southern hemisphere teams, there is added excitement surrounding this summer’s tournament in South Africa for McCarthy and his team-mates.
Having been drawn in Pool B with England, Australia and Fiji, he said: “We’re not really looking past the first game against England to be honest. They’re going to be a very, very tough challenge.
“The English lads, obviously we beat them in the Grand Slam decider in March, but they’re going to be all guns blazing. First game of the World Cup, they’re going to have very high ambitions obviously.
“So we’re just looking at the English game and then we’ll worry about what comes after that. Preparation wise, it’s just keep getting better every day and brushing up on things we need to brush up on.
“Just be in the best place possible for England to go out and try to beat them. It’s important we have that belief within us around how good a side we can really be if we perform to the levels we expect of us.
“We’re just really looking forward to going out and testing ourselves against some of the best players in the world at our age. It’s really, really exciting. We’ve trained very well across our camps and we’re building quite well.”
Ireland’s preparations for the World Championship included a warm-up win away to Italy last weekend, while four uncapped players have fought their way into the final 30-man selection bound for Cape Town.
Highly-rated scrum half Jack Oliver, who is about to enter his second year in the Munster Academy, is part of that quartet, along with forwards Ronan Foxe, Max Clein and Dan Barron, who have all benefited from game-time in the Energia All-Ireland League.
Having also played at that level with UCD and secured a place in the Leinster Academy for 2023/24, hooker McCarthy knows how intense the competition for places is and acknowledges the hard work that those newcomers have put in to make the cut.
“The underage systems in Ireland are just so impressive. Just pumping out players year on year. There’s 10 or 15 other lads that could easily be in the squad as well – the competition we have at U-20 level in Ireland is so high.
“Those four lads have done really, really well to push into the squad. It’s been very, very hard to not include the same lads in the squad (from the U-20 Six Nations), because everyone’s been doing so well.”
While the vast majority of Richie Murphy’s World Championship squad saw action during this year’s U-20 Six Nations, there are a number of players who also lined out during the U-20 Summer Series in Italy twelve months ago.
Out-half Sam Prendergast, who starred during the Grand Slam run, made his U-20 debut at last summer’s event which also featured Conor O’Tighearnaigh, James McNabney, George Hadden, Charlie Irvine, Diarmuid Mangan and Harry West.
Some of that latter contingent are key cogs in the Irish lineout, particularly 6ft 7in lock O’Tighearnaigh as vice-captain and lineout caller. He made his Leinster senior debut in April and has been brought into their Academy squad.
Like his provincial colleague, McCarthy is targeting a number of areas for personal growth in South Africa, both on and off the pitch. He wants to make more of an impact as a ball carrier and keep up Ireland’s high standards in the lineout.
“Obviously the most important thing is your set piece when you’re throwing. I was happy with most of it during the Six Nations, but hopefully I can brush a few things up.
“I’m looking for a very high success rate in that, and maybe get my hands on the ball a bit more in the matches. I feel like I can be a very good ball carrier and, so, I kind of want to get a few more opportunities in games to get my hands on the ball.”
The 19-year-old Dubliner, who captained Blackrock College to Leinster Schools Senior Cup in 2022, says it has been ‘a kind of seamless transition’ since the Ireland U-20s have come back together as a group.
There has been a change in the coaching set-up with defence and lineout coach Willie Faloon unfortunately unable to be involved this time due to personal reasons.
Connacht Elite Player Development Officer Andrew Browne, who has coached the Ireland Under-19 forwards since the summer of 2021, steps up in Faloon’s place, and McCarthy has enjoyed working with the Galway man.
“He’s been really, really impressive, Brownie. I think he’s an excellent coach. He kind of specialises in the lineout and I feel like he’s really added a lot of positives to our squad,” he admitted.
“He’s very particular in certain things which I think we maybe weren’t very particular on before in the Six Nations. It’s been really exciting to have Brownie on board with us, and we feel we can become more of a dynamic side, in the pack especially.”
The former Old Belvedere underage player acknowledges how special it will be to lead out the Ireland team for their pool games at Paarl Gymnasium in the Western Cape.
The last three players to captain Ireland at a World Rugby U-20 Championship in the southern hemisphere were Niall Scannell in 2012 (South Africa), Jack O’Donoghue in 2014 (New Zealand), and Charlie Ryan in 2019 (Argentina).
As well as getting things right on the pitch and improving Ireland’s recent form in the tournament (they were ninth, 11th and eighth at the last three editions), McCarthy knows that touring South Africa could be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for some of the squad.
“We recognise how lucky we are and what an opportunity it is to go to South Africa, such a rich place in rugby history, and represent Ireland on the world stage. We’re just really, really grateful and really excited for the opportunity,” he added.