The Ireland Under-20s (sponsored by PwC) head into their last pool match against Fiji on Tuesday (kick-off 1.30pm local time/12.30pm Irish time – live on Virgin Media Two), knowing that a win should be enough to seal a semi-final place.
Tomorrow’s game in Stellenbosch will be Ireland’s third game in 10 days having drawn 34-all with England in the opening round and then picked up a 30-10 bonus point victory over Australia.
Their squad depth is being really tested, with a number of suspensions to key players – Hugh Cooney, Rory Telfer and James McNabney have all received bans following disciplinary hearings – and some injuries also disrupting their preparations.
Head coach Richie Murphy has made a total of 10 personnel changes to the starting line-up as the U-20 Six Nations Grand Slam champions wrap up the pool stages against Fiji.
He also confirmed that Shannon flyer Josh Costello had been called up to the squad. Harry West, who was due to start at full-back against Fiji, injured his hamstring in training, so Henry McErlean will continue in the number 15 jersey. Hugh Gavin joins the replacements bench.
“It’s a case of needs must. We’ve been playing pretty tough fixtures over five-day turnarounds on a very heavy pitch in Paarl,” said Murphy, whose side are set for their first outing at Stellenbosch’s Danie Craven Stadium.
“We’re in a position where we felt we need to rotate the squad. We brought 30 players that we were confident were able to fit into our team and were able to play the game at the level we need to be able to play at.”
Ireland currently sit second in Pool B, level on eight points with leaders England, who have a better points difference (+46 compared to +20). Regardless of the result of the Australia-England clash, Murphy’s charges know what they need to do in the earlier fixture.
“We’ll just keep an eye on it. There’s nothing we can do about that, what happens, happens. Our job is to win our match and focus in on moment by moment and just trying to build a winning performance against Fiji.
“We know if we win, we will end up in the top section and that’s where we are targeting.”
Murphy’s young guns put in a dominant second half performance to beat Australia in the last round, a try past the 80-minute mark from Diarmuid Mangan, tomorrow’s captain, secured what could be a vital bonus point. Murphy said the players are hungry and eager to keep improving.
These guys are hungry, and they’re always hungry to get better. The English game, I suppose the feeling afterwards was a little bit of frustration.
“That sort of drove us into that Australia fixture where guys knew that it was sort of last chance saloon. We know that all the way through from now on, they are all must-win games.
“The Irish system helps us in that regard because the guys play highly competitive games from a young age which is normally cup rugby. We feel like we’re in a good place in relation to that.
“It’s just very important that we concentrate on the job at hand, which is Fiji. Fiji against England were a very different side in the wet than they were the week before where they scored 37 points against Australia.”
Ireland played their previous two games in rain-hit Paarl and the heavy underfoot conditions have proven to be tricky, forcing them to play a certain way. Improved weather and a change of venue to Stellenbosch could potentially benefit them tomorrow.
“The weather has picked up down here,” admitted Murphy. “It looks like it will be a dry day. They have moved the match venue, which in some ways is a good thing and in some ways is a bad thing.
“But I think our guys will get a bit of a bounce from playing on a harder surface where we can sort of play the game that we’ve been playing all the way through the year.”
The Wicklow man was asked about his side’s discipline around the tackle area, given they have three players ruled out through suspension. Cooney, who was also stood down with concussion, will miss the rest of the tournament, while Telfer and McNabney are unavailable for the next two games.
“Nobody is intentionally tackling high. We’re not teaching guys to tackle high. Guys closing space and how that changes the dynamic of the tackle is an interesting factor.
“Obviously, the head contacts that we’ve had, I don’t think any of them have been intentional. James McNabney’s one, in particular, there’s other people in that vicinity which cause distraction for him on his arrival into that tackle area.
“It is what it is, we’re not going to get too deep on it. We don’t teach the lads how to tackle high. It’s really important to keep doing what we’re doing. I think we’ve probably been unlucky in certain ways, the way we’ve lost three players to that.”
Fiji are a team that showed plenty of promise during their tournament opener against Australia. On the right surface and in good conditions, they can cause opponents plenty of problems. Their captain Moti Murray is a serious ball carrying threat, making 30 carries so far for the second most in the competition.
Murphy expects another stern test, insisting: “I don’t think the English game (a 53-7 defeat for Fiji) was a good reflection on Fiji because the conditions were obviously quite difficult, something that they are probably not that used to.
“They have some really great players in their side. Their seven, Murray, is a top class player, very effective with ball in hand. Very good over the top of the ball at the breakdown, a really menace. They’ll challenge us at the breakdown, it’s really important we’re accurate in that area.
“If we are accurate in that area and we can build some phases, we’ll definitely cause them a bit of trouble and that’s obviously part of the plan.”
Before today’s press conference began, Murphy offered his condolences to the families of Andrew O’Donnell and Max Wall, the two St. Michael’s College pupils who tragically died while on holiday in Ios, Greece over the weekend. He said:
It’s a really tough time. Obviously, we are massively devastated to hear of the passing of Max Wall and Andrew O’Donnell, two boys from St. Michael’s.
“We have a number of St. Michael’s guys here in the squad (six in total), who know them well.
“And as a father of kids around that age, and as an Irishman, I feel really devastated for them. We’d like to offer our condolences to the Wall and O’Donnell families.”