The Ireland Under-20s (sponsored by PwC) begin their World Rugby U-20 Championship campaign in Paarl on Saturday when they face old rivals in their Pool B opener (kick-off 1.30pm local time/12.30pm Irish time).
The Ireland youngsters, who will also play Australia and Fiji in the coming days, have travelled to the much-anticipated tournament in South Africa on the back of a Grand Slam-winning Six Nations run.
Their eye-catching performances have marked them out as one of the contenders for the global title, but head coach Richie Murphy says the group are just focused on the here and now, and getting ready for the challenges ahead.
“We don’t look back, we look forward. Probably from the very start of the year our focus was on trying to prepare and get ready for the Junior World Cup, to compete at the highest level, that’s never really changed,” said Murphy.
“We’ve been waiting for it for quite a long time, the players are in good spirits. They’ve settled in well. They trained this afternoon (Thursday), it was sort of our big training of the week and they look like they’re in a good place.”
This is the first running of a World Rugby U-20 Championship since 2019 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, so it will be Murphy’s first opportunity to have a crack at it since taking up the role in March 2021.
He was involved in the Ireland senior coaching set-up for both the 2015 and 2019 Rugby World Cups. The back-to-back Under-20 Grand Slam-winning coach is excited at the prospect of leading the current side to more potential glory.
“When you get here and get a feel for the place, you can feel how big the actual competition is,” acknowledged the Wicklow man.
Obviously, in a place like Cape Town, it’s a special feel to it. Our group this year probably has the advantage that out of the 23 players that played against England in the last game, 22 of those guys were available to travel, and a few others are coming back from injuries as well.
“We’re in a good place in relation to the fitness and standards of the squad.”
The World Rugby U-20 Championship is often a joy to watch, being played at a fast pace with high levels of skills, and maybe sometimes with a less structured approach. Saturday’s opening fixture is live on Virgin Media Two and World Rugby platforms where there is no local broadcaster.
Fans like to find out who might be the next rising star in each country. The competition’s special nature has not been lost on Murphy. He has tried to use some of his past coaching experience to build a strong team culture within the group.
“I had a massive interest in it (the World Rugby U-20 Championship) watching it from afar and seeing it when I was involved with the seniors, and then back at Leinster. It always seemed to be a competition that the best players come through.
“Trying to bring some of the experiences that I had from the senior team down to our guys, building a team over the course of a season where we’re in and out sporadically in camps.
“Trying to build a little bit of culture, but also a mentality that we’re able to compete at the very top level,” he explained.
A big talking point heading into the weekend is the pitch at the Paarl Gymnasium. The bad weather has disrupted preparations, making for ‘heavy’ conditions come the game on Saturday. It is far from an ideal situation.
“We arrived in Cape Town, our training ground was Hamilton, and unfortunately, it was practically unplayable. We did a very light run on it on Wednesday, which was way below the standard that Junior World Cup teams should be training in.
“Today we got a decent run-out, we got a new pitch and are in a good place now. We haven’t been at Paarl, the Captain’s Runs at Paarl have been cancelled, which is probably the right thing to do, considering there are three games on it in a day.
“It’s going to be interesting to see how it holds up. We’ve had a member of our staff at the pitch and he says it’s in good condition. We’ll go there with our kickers tomorrow (Friday) and get a feel for it.”
Murphy’s charges themselves on their ability to play a quick, highly skilful and expansive brand of rugby. They are determined that they will not stray too far away from the blueprint that has worked so well for them so far.
“There are some slight changes to the way we play, but we are who we are, and we want to be true to the way we’ve played the game until now. We’re not going to go massively away from what we’ve done in the past.
“Little adaptations, you’re probably going to have to kick a little bit more, and when we get to Saturday or even tomorrow when we get down to Paarl to have a look, we can make those adjustments pretty easily within our systems.”
The squad’s first assignment pits them against opponents they know all too well. It is England on Saturday afternoon, a team they played just over three months ago in their last competitive fixture which confirmed them as Grand Slam champions.
“You’re always excited to play England, but you’re never happy that you’re playing them. It’s always a big challenge, a real tight rivalry between the guys,” added Murphy.
“So, I suppose in some ways it’s probably better that we start against England because at least we have a bit more of a feel for them, and can get another look at Australia before we go there.”