The Ireland Under-20s (sponsored by PwC) clash with host nation South Africa in Sunday’s opening World Rugby U-20 Championship semi-final, aiming to match the 2016 team’s achievement in qualifying for the decider.
The eagerly-awaited game at Cape Town’s Athlone Sports Stadium kicks off at 4.30pm local time/3.30pm Irish time and will be shown live on Virgin Media Two and World Rugby platforms elsewhere.
Ireland have reached the last-four with an unbeaten record from the pool stages, courtesy of two 20-point wins over Fiji and Australia, along with an opening 34-all draw with fellow semi-finalists England.
In a difficult week for all involved, the Irish camp has faced tragedy off the pitch, coupled with some setbacks on the field of play due to a number of suspensions – Hugh Cooney, Rory Telfer and James McNabney have all picked up bans – and injuries.
Head coach Richie Murphy says it has been a tough period, but he is very proud of his young players and how they have coped in such difficult circumstances.
“I was extremely proud of these guys way before that happened. I thought like everything that has happened to them over the course of the year, they take everything in their stride,” he said, referencing the tragic deaths of Ireland U-20 scrum half Jack Oliver’s father Greig, and St. Michael’s College pupils Andrew O’Donnell and Max Wall.
“They have the ability to deal with disappointment and upset and still be able go out and put in a performance. It definitely wasn’t the performance we would have wanted (the last day) but Fiji on a dry track is a handful for any team.
“They scored 37 points against Australia. England played them on a very wet day. It was difficult situation we were in, but I thought the guys showed great character getting through that.”
The Ireland Under-20s played South Africa during last year’s U-20 Six Nations Summer Series in Italy, albeit with very different line-ups. The Junior Springboks won 33-24 on that occasion.
They will have the advantage of playing on home soil this time, and while Murphy knows it will be a hard task taking on the tournament hosts, he acknowledged that his charges are raring to go.
We are expecting quite a big crowd, a big South African crowd. There’s actually quite a large number of Irish people here, which is fantastic, but they’ll be very much outnumbered in the stadium.
“And so that’s going to be a challenge. But it’s a challenge that these lads are kind of looking forward to. Playing South Africa in South Africa is a special occasion, no matter whether it’s Under-20 or senior level.
“It’s one of the best rugby places to go and play, and it’s something that I’m sure these guys will remember for a long time.”
The South Africa U-20s play from a blueprint similar to their senior side. They use their powerful forwards to dictate the nature of the game, outmuscling the opposition, while also having a usually well-drilled set-piece game.
However, Ireland’s reinforced front five and dynamic back row will be confident they can more than match them in the physicality stakes. They showed how dominant they can be in the second half of that rain-hit bonus point victory over Australia.
The weather is inclined to be wet and windy in Cape Town at the moment, but it is expected to improve for kick-off time on Sunday. Murphy insists he has picked the best team possible to front up for the battle ahead.
“The team that we’ve picked, we feel we can play a number of different ways with the team. The weather became pretty poor against Australia, we showed we could put the ball up our jumper a little bit and maul, play field position and squeeze them.
“South Africa’s pack are big, they’re strong. It’s a very typical South African team – plenty of speed in the back-line, loads of illusive runners. But, up front, you’re going to have to get at least parity in order to be able to be in the game.
“We’ve picked what we would see to be our biggest front five and our back row – with the way things have gone with suspension and other things – is probably the best back row we have available to us at this stage,” explained the Wicklow man.
The aerial duel in terms of kicking is going to be an important factor in deciding who wins this contest. Both teams are going to have to be smart with regards to their exit strategy and their management of territory.
“The kicking game is going to be massive in this particular instance. South Africa don’t tend to play that much at their end, so trying to get some pressure through to their kickers, and obviously what we do with the ball when we receive it at our end is going to be important.
“We have always been a team that has always tried to play to the space and we won’t change but sometimes the space is in the back field. Your kicking game is obviously very important in relation to that.
“We’re fully aware, a semi-final of a World Cup, about what cup rugby looks like. We’ve a team that’s able to adapt to that pretty well.”
Being adaptable is something that is constantly highlighted by Andy Farrell, Murphy’s coaching counterpart with the Ireland Men’s senior team. It is a skill he believes all teams must have if they have ambitions to be successful and win tournaments.
It is a quality that the younger generation have shown in abundance through their back-to-back U-20 Grand Slam titles, with Murphy noting: “Coming into it, we said that would do everything we could to make sure that the 15 lads that went out on the field were in a really good place.
“That’s happened all the way through this. We’ve had three red cards at this tournament – we haven’t had one red card in any other game since I’ve been working with the Under-20s, over the last two years.
“Obviously we’ve picked up a couple of injuries along the way with that. There’s been plenty of stuff thrown at us. We talk to the players, they’ve been adaptable. We’ve been able to change.
“We’ve talked to them about some of the fields that we played on. Paarl is a beautiful place and a great school, but the surface was obviously very difficult to play on.
“We had a change of surface when we went last week to Danie Craven Stadium and we’ve another change of surface this week. We talk about being adaptable all the time.
“It’s very much a development competition and those challenges are challenges that will stick with these guys throughout their rugby careers.”
This particular Ireland U-20 group have been together since last October with a focus on the U-20 Six Nations and the bigger picture of the World Championship in the summer. For them the aim has remained the same, the message rarely changing.
It is another huge moment for them on Sunday. Murphy hopes that his talented class of 2023 can produce another big performance and move one step closer to the ultimate prize at this age grade.
“The consistency in our approach, to producing the team, to getting our team performance won’t change very much in relation to this game,” he added.
It stuck with us I suppose all the way through the season. It worked pretty well last year. We’ll be focusing in on our roles and our jobs.
“We talked about getting ourselves in this position last October. Now that we are here we just have to be true to ourselves and play the game we know we can play.
“We’re really concentrating on being the best version of our team that we can be. That is what’s most important and that’s what I know Jack (who returned home on Thursday) and Greig, that’s what they would have wanted.”