All eyes turn to Paarl Gymnasium on Thursday morning (kick-off 10am Irish time – live on Virgin Media Two) where the Ireland Under-20s (sponsored by PwC) face Pool B leaders Australia in their second World Rugby U-20 Championship game.
It is a must-win contest if Richie Murphy’s youngsters are to have a shot at reaching the semi-finals next week. They drew 34-all with England in a testing opening clash in South Africa.
Their tournament opener could have ended in a win or a defeat, so putting three points on the board was not the worst outcome. However, it means they cannot afford to drop any more points in the pool stages.
Ireland’s backs and attack coach Mark Sexton knows they must put in a big performance if they are going to beat the Junior Wallabies, who scored seven tries in their 46-37 first round victory over Fiji.
“When you come to a Junior World Cup every match is do-or-die because if you lose one, you’re certainly on the edge of a cliff, do-or-die,” he said.
“We want to go out, we want to put on our best foot forward, we want a performance. Everyone is excited and looking forward to it.”
In heavy underfoot conditions last Saturday, Ireland trailed England by nine points at one stage before scoring 19 unanswered points to lead 34-24 heading into the closing stages. Yet, a strong English fightback, coupled up with a red card for centre Hugh Cooney, led to a share of the spoils.
Murphy’s charges showed glimpses of the form that won them the Grand Slam earlier in the year, but there were too many uncharacteristic errors that cost them the victory in the end.
Sexton says they have learned a lot from the 10-try encounter, and they hope to make the improvements necessary for tomorrow’s crunch clash.
“We could’ve won, we could’ve lost. Ultimately, three points keeps us in the competition, keeps us in the race for the top four.
“Takeaways from the game, we probably overplayed a little bit at our end, failed to get out a couple of times.
“We were a bit short in the contact department, especially on the defensive side of things. Ultimately, we feel like we’ve learnt a lot, and we will be better again.”
Sexton, a younger brother of Leinster and Ireland captain Jonathan, added: “We need to get out of our end better. A couple of times we failed to get out against England and they punished us. They actually gave us two or three attempts each time, and we failed each time.
“Our discipline definitely needs to be better. We gave away 12 penalties, it’s not us. We gave away a yellow card and a red card, and ultimately those things can cost you. They are two things we took away and said we need to get better at.”
Despite losing prop Marley Pearce to a second half red card, Australia claimed maximum points against Fiji in what was an impressive collective performance. Sexton expects nothing less than another stern test from the young Wallabies side.
Australia at any level at international rugby are serious competitors. This particular team, we’ve seen they’ve got a strong scrum.
“They beat New Zealand once, they lost to New Zealand once. They surprisingly kick a lot for an Australian team, I’m not sure has Eddie Jones had a bit of a say already in the way they are playing.
“They play a pressure game. I’ve heard their head coach (Nathan Grey) talk quite a bit about pressure and playing a pressure game. We’re expecting typical Australia with those added (elements), kicking game, pressure, good set piece.”
Ireland have made four personnel changes to the team that started against England. Old Belvedere prop Ronan Foxe will make his debut in place of the injured George Hadden, with Charlie Irvine, Brian Gleeson and James Nicholson also coming into the starting XV.
Cooney has been ruled out due to his red card suspension and HIA protocols, so Hugh Gavin, who has appeared regularly on the wing for the Ireland U-20s this season, moves to centre to partner John Devine, his Connacht Academy colleague.
When asked, Sexton, who has worked within Connacht as an Elite Player Development Officer for the last couple of seasons, confirmed that Gavin and Devine have played alongside each other plenty of times.
“They’ve played for Connacht underage before, they played a couple of times in our warm-up games this year. They’re in the Academy together, they train every day together. They have a good relationship on and off the field,” noted the newly-appointed Connacht assistant attack coach.
Ireland’s showdown with Australia has the unusual kick-off time of 11am local time, an early start for both sets of players. It is a scenario which they prepared for during their training camps.
“We’ve been up at the crack of dawn every day since six weeks ago. We are up at between 5.30am and 6.30am because we just want to familiarise ourselves with an early time.
“Breakfast is at 6am every day, and we’ve built the last few weeks knowing that our first kick-off was one o’clock and this one at 11 o’clock. It’s a great challenge. Andy Farrell always says you have to look at the positive side of things. It’s a challenge, but it’s great.”
The main message coming from Sexton was simple throughout today’s media call from South Africa. He knows there are no second chances after tomorrow.
“Ultimately, when we came into the competition, if you want to get into the top four you’ve got to win all three games. Getting three points (the last day) was better than getting two points or better than getting a point, so ultimately now it’s do-or-die,” he concluded.