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‘We’re Good To Go’ – McNabney On Ireland U-20s’ Showdown With Australia

‘We’re Good To Go’ – McNabney On Ireland U-20s’ Showdown With Australia

Ulster Academy forward James McNabney was one of the Ireland Under-20s' try scorers against England last Saturday ©INPHO/Morgan Treacy

Ireland take on Australia in a crucial U20 World Championship match in South Africa on Thursday morning. The game kicks off at 10 a.m. Irish time and is live on Virgin Media.

James McNabney is one of the most experienced players in Richie Murphy’s Ireland Under-20 squad. He was part of both the 2022 and 2023 U-20 Grand Slam-winning sides, alongside fellow forwards Conor O’Tighearnaigh and Diarmuid Mangan.

A number of quality Ulster back rowers have come up through the Ireland Under-20 programme in recent years, McNabney being the latest to join that list behind the likes of 2022 U-20 Grand Slam-winning captain Reuben Crothers and current Ulster players, Harry Sheridan and David McCann.

“Reuben has been a big inspiration to me,” admitted McNabney. “He was the captain of the U-20s last year. He’s a fellow friend at Ulster, me and him are in the Academy together, we train hard together. He has helped me along the way.

“I would say I’m probably more mature and better than I was last year, or I’d like to hope so. He’s definitely helped me along the way, as well as Willie Faloon as a coach.”

He is a past pupil of Cambridge House in Ballymena. The 20-year-old said the school has helped to shape him into the man he is today, and he takes a lot of pride in representing his hometown of Ballymena.

“It’s a great honour to represent the school. They’ve done everything for me and got me probably to where I’m at today, shaped me into the person that I am.

“I had the same coach at school as I did at the club, he has been great for me. Ballymena is my home club and it was always an honour to play for them. They’ve done a lot for me and I’m very grateful for that.”

Having started the World Rugby U-20 Championship in the number 8 jersey, McNabney switches back to blindside flanker for Thursday’s must-win clash with Australia (kick-off 11am local time/10am Irish time – live on Virgin Media Two).

The versatile forward scored a try during last Saturday’s enthralling 34-all draw with England. He admits it was a tough game and that Murphy’s youngsters need to win tomorrow if they are going to make the semi-final stage.

“The forwards had to work hard throughout the game. We could’ve won, we could’ve lost, but we were just happy to come away with the three points,” acknowledged the Ballymena native.

“Originally, we started out saying we had to win all our games and that slightly changed. There is slightly more pressure added to this week against Australia.

“I think we can definitely do it and we need to get the win if we’re planning to get a top four ranking and advance to the semi-finals.”

Tomorrow’s showdown with the Junior Wallabies has huge implications for Ireland’s World Championship ambitions. McNabney is aware of the magnitude of the challenge ahead, but believes every game they’ve played so far at this level has carried a level of importance.

“This is probably one of the biggest games of the year for us because it’s do-or-die, as (backs and attack coach) Mark (Sexton) said. If we lose this one, we probably won’t get top four.

“But also on the other hand, every game is a big game for us, and if you don’t win every game, you’re only as good as your last game, so we try and win them all.”

The World Rugby U-20 Championship provides the perfect platform for players to test themselves against some of the brightest young prospects from the other side of the world.

McNabney got a taste for southern hemisphere opposition before when he played against South Africa in the U-20 Six Nations Summer series last year. For most of the current squad, it will be their first time squaring up to a team like the Junior Wallabies.

“We know they have threats all over the park. They are a southern hemisphere team, a lot of the lads haven’t really played against these sides. I only played against South Africa last summer, that was the first exposure I had to it.

“They are very physical, they like to run with the ball. They’re good in open space. We’ve got to take that away from them at the start.”

The pitch at Paarl Gymnasium was a talking point emerging from the opening round. The rain, combined with soft ground and mud in places, made it difficult to play an expansive brand of rugby. Being a true forward, the Ulster talent admitted the conditions have actually suited him.

“The pitch is heavy. There is not much we can do about it, both teams are in the same circumstances and we just have to get on with it. At the end of the (England) game, we were definitely very tired as a pack, the legs were drained.

“But I kind of suit that pitch, I’m used to that sort of environment. The legs were sore after the game, but we’ve recovered well and we’re good to go.”

The short turnaround between fixtures in South Africa demands demands a lot of the players both physically and mentally. It asks questions of your fitness and the resources and strength of your overall squad.

A battle-hardened McNabney added: “It doesn’t seem long since we played, but we have a great team of physios We are just working hard to try and get back, doing as much as possible, getting as much sleep and recovery as possible, and the team is good to go for tomorrow.”