Head coach Richie Murphy was pleased with how the Ireland Under-20s (sponsored by PwC), playing against a tragic backdrop, managed to dig deep to hold off Fiji’s challenge in Stellenbosch.
Fiji scored late in both halves, and also had a purple patch at the start of the second period, but an error-strewn Ireland still did enough to double their win tally at the World Rugby U-20 Championship and book a prized semi-final berth.
Brian Gleeson and captain Gus McCarthy, who was sprung from the bench, notched two tries each in a courageous 47-27 victory, while Danny Sheahan, George Hadden and Andrew Osborne also crossed the whitewash.
With Australia and England drawing 22-all, Murphy’s side finished top of Pool B on 13 points. They will face hosts South Africa in a mouth-watering semi-final at Athlone Sports Stadium next Sunday (kick-off 4.30pm local time/3.30pm Irish time).
Pool A winners France will meet England, the best runners-up, in the other last-four clash, with the final scheduled for the same Cape Town venue on Friday week (July 14) (kick-off 7pm local time/6pm Irish time).
Deeply shocked and saddened by events in Ios and Cape Town in the last couple of days, the tragic deaths of their team-mate Jack Oliver’s father Greig, and St. Michael’s College pupils Andrew O’Donnell and Max Wall, have cast a shadow over this young Irish squad.
Murphy spoke afterwards of his admiration for how the group are dealing with such emotional turmoil and the response they showed on the pitch to secure such an important result.
“It’s a really strange day. I thought the guys did an incredible job. You could see how we were affected, though. Our accuracy was not where it would normally be,” he said.
“Greig was a great man, a friend of mine, and obviously Jack’s dad. Jack wanted to come to the game today. He’s here with the boys, and the boys are looking after him as best they can.”
With 10 changes to the starting XV, the Ireland coaches were able to test the squad’s depth and give important game-time to the likes of debutants Sam Berman, Dan Barron and Max Clein.
A number of players who are eligible at this age grade for next season were involved, including try scorers Gleeson and Sheahan and the second row pairing of Evan O’Connell and Joe Hopes.
Looming large on the horizon now is Ireland’s third ever World Rugby U-20 Championship semi-final appearance, which will take place at Cape Town’s Athlone Sports Stadium on Sunday.
Their 2016 predecessors were runners-up, the class of 2014 finished fourth, while when the competition was played at Under-21 level, Ireland were beaten finalists back in 2004.
With an unusually high amount of handling errors and a poor display in defence and at lineout time, Murphy knows they cannot afford a repeat performance in the last-four if they are to extend their unbeaten run in South Africa.
“We know how dangerous Fiji can be. We would have liked to have played them in the rain – as we’ve experienced that weather in recent games – but we got them on a dry, sunny day,” he acknowledged.
“It’s a little bit of that (the personnel changes having an impact) and a little bit of the guys coming out of the system, maybe trying to make too much of an impression.
“Our strength is our team work, our ability to work together as a unit. From time to time we went away from that today. We’ll have to stick to the task in the play-offs.”
It was important for some players to cut their teeth in the tournament, especially given that suspensions for dangerous tackles have sidelined Hugh Cooney, Rory Telfer and James McNabney. Ruadhan Quinn is also going through the return-to-play protocols.
A hamstring injury cruelly denied Harry West his first start at full-back, but Ireland’s ability to adapt and cope with those absences and setbacks meant they got the job done despite playing well below their best.
“We had a lot of rotation in our group this week,” added Murphy. “For any coach, you want to be able to rotate your players while keeping the level of performance high.
“The heart and determination and resilience of the group shone through. We’re going into a semi-final now, and we’ll have to be a lot more accurate. But we’re delighted to be through to the semis, this is what we came for.”