The Ireland Under-20s (sponsored by TritonLake) booked their place in the World Rugby U-20 Championship final for only the second time at this age grade, following a controlled second half performance against South Africa.
Fully deserving of their four-try 31-12 semi-final victory, next Friday’s final against France at Athlone Sports Stadium (kick-off 7pm local time/6pm Irish time) gives this talented Ireland U-20 group a shot at history.
For head coach Richie Murphy the message stays the same as it has been all the way through an already rewarding season, which has seen his players stretch the Ireland U-20s’ unbeaten run to 11 matches. He wants them to seize the opportunity again.
Speaking after second half tries from Brian Gleeson, James Nicholson and replacement Sam Berman had wrapped up the result, he said: “I think the big thing for us now is we’re in a World Cup final, which is exactly where we wanted to be. We’ve talked about preparing for these moments.
“I suppose in the second half we probably put a little bit more of ourselves out onto the pitch in the way that we’re capable of playing the game. It’s nice to be in a final and just be true to ourselves and play the game we’ve played it all year.
We’re in a really good position, obviously got through the Six Nations and England had a right crack at us at the start of the competition but we’ve managed to get out of that with a draw.
“So, we’re going into this with plenty of confidence. We’re in a good place as a team. We’ll see what the knocks are like over the next 24 hours and you don’t have much time to change in these competitions because they’re only five-day turnarounds.
“Most of that time is spent resting, very little time in training. So, look, we’ll go out and have a look at France and England, and whoever it’ll be in the final, we know it’s going to be a really tough game.”
Maintaining their unbeaten form like Ireland, defending champions France recovered from an early 17-point deficit to win their semi-final showdown with England. They ran out 52-31 winners thanks to five second half tries.
Murphy’s youngsters, who beat France 33-31 in Cork earlier in the year on the way to winning the U-20 Grand Slam, had to soak up a lot of pressure during the opening half hour against the Junior Springboks, forcing a big defensive shift.
Despite their territorial dominance, the South Africa U-20s failed to score in the first half. It was Ireland who broke the deadlock just before half-time, after a well-measured Sam Prendergast cross-field kick put winger Nicholson over in the corner.
Murphy was pleased with how the defence held up when they were under the pump, saying: “I thought South Africa came out strong and threw a lot of stuff at us but our boys showed great character to stay in the fight.
“I thought system-wise we actually did quite well and were obviously delighted to get out of that onslaught of pressure and soak it all up, and then actually go into half-time seven points up, which I thought was a massive turning point in the game.”
Ireland’s game management and composure on the ball vastly improved during the closing 40 minutes. Out-half Prendergast played a key role in asserting the game-plan, and he was praised by his coach afterwards.
“I thought Sam came into his own especially in the second half, he started getting his head up and started moving the ball to space really well.”
The Wicklow man went on to highlight the collective efforts of his side, admitting: “I thought from a team point of view, the first half was about grit and determination. In the second half we probably showed a little bit more about what we can do as a rugby team, and scored some really good tries.”
Murphy also mentioned the hard work and influence of Willie Faloon, who has been defence coach since the 2022 U-20 Six Nations but was unable to travel to this tournament because of family commitments.
“I know back home, Willie Faloon will be very happy with the defence. Willie, one of our coaches stayed at home for the birth of his first child. He’s been on the phone regularly.
“Myself and Andrew Browne are kind of filling in for him, trying to look after his defence and I know he’ll be very happy with the boys tonight.”
Ireland’s ability to cope with high-pressure moments was credited by South African U-20 head coach Bafana Nhleko as one of the key factors on the day.
“Ireland were good value for their win – we need to be fair to them. But one of the things that we’ve constantly been talking about is certain teams are just better at playing under pressure situations because they’re exposed to those pressure situations,” he commented.
The Junior Springboks do not play in a preparatory U-20 tournament in the early part of the year. With a number of players making the step up from Under-20 to senior international rugby in recent seasons, Ireland continue to develop promising young players through the U-20 Six Nations.
It is a tournament that really benefits them heading into the summertime World Rugby U-20 Championship, albeit that the Covid-19 pandemic meant that the global competition has not been played since 2019.
Murphy agreed: “The U-20 Six Nations gives us an opportunity to play a really high level competition. I think competition is what really helps these guys develop because they learn a lot through game-time and playing together.
“I suppose over the course of the season these guys have played five U-20 Six Nations (matches), now four matches in this, so 10 top-class matches with a couple of warm-up matches thrown in.
“It gives you a great opportunity to develop the group, one, as a team and two, as individuals because we come from a country with four different professional teams so to try and bond those guys together is actually quite easy.
“But, it’s a really good part of what we do in Irish Rugby, and the IRFU itself has given us great support in relation to funding and backing to allow us to do what we’ve done.”
Today’s semi-final success brought smiles and celebrations at the end of a very difficult week for all involved with the Ireland squad, particularly scrum half Jack Oliver, whose dad Greig tragically died in a paragliding accident just last Monday.
The Oliver family are very much in the team’s thoughts, with Murphy adding:
It’s obviously been a difficult couple of weeks. We’ve had plenty of stuff going on, but obviously Greig’s passing was particularly difficult and Jack was obviously in the group with us until Wednesday evening, when he left.
“It was a difficult time for the boys, but Jack sent his support this morning and so did Fiona, Greig’s wife.
“So, I know they’re at home and we’re really delighted to be able to bring him back something because no matter what happens in the final now, we’ll be going back with something for Jack.”