Captain Gus McCarthy is hoping to lift another trophy when the Ireland Under-20s (sponsored by PwC) meet France in next Friday’s World Rugby U-20 Championship final in Cape Town (kick-off 7pm local time/6pm Irish time).
The 20-year-old Dubliner has had a dream 16 months, winning the Leinster Schools Senior Cup with Blackrock College, and the U-20 Six Nations title after a Grand Slam-winning campaign back in March, and now he is one game away from grasping the holy grail of silverware at U-20 international level.
Ireland’s pack really stood up in their 31-12 semi-final win over South Africa. Their physical effort in defence in the first half, and the work at the breakdown after the interval was pivotal to the outcome. McCarthy was proud of his team-mates for the immense shift they all put in.
“That defence we put in there was unbelievable, the performance we put in there. Not everything was pretty, not everything went how we wanted it to go but we stuck in and fought hard for each other. I’m just really, really proud of the boys,” he said.
It is evident that Richie Murphy’s young guns are very professional in the way they approach the game and the way they analyse their performances, always striving for better and hoping to improve each time. The captain was happy with the four-try display.
“I’m not really too sure it was the most complete performance to be honest, I don’t think it was. We’ve got a few things to work on now for the final. But, no, we’re really, really delighted with the performance, we stuck in and worked really hard for each other.”
Ireland did extremely well not to concede any points in the first half considering how much possession the South Africa side had. The Pool B winners struggled to string together phases, making it very hard to launch any threatening attacks.
However, with half-time fast approaching, Ireland punished the tournament hosts when they got into try-scoring range, with ever-alert winger James Nicholson dotting down via Sam Prendergast’s pinpoint cross-field kick.
The Junior Springboks, who had topped Pool C, tried to hit back swiftly, but they could not break down the green wall of defence. They had an unsuccessful drop goal attempt to end the opening half.
McCarthy explained: “It shows how well we defended that they were going for the drop goal. (It’s) just credit to the boys and the coaching over the last few months that we really back our defence. We really, really defended well and stayed high and fought for each other out there.”
Murphy’s charges came out like different beasts for the closing 40 minutes at the Athlone Sports Stadium. They upped the tempo by playing a much more free-flowing brand of rugby, built on the back of a powerful scrum and maul.
In response to a levelling South African try from Imad Khan, in-form number 8 Brian Gleeson, a very deserving recipient of the Mastercard player-of-the-match award, bulldozed over for a 50th-minute try after a well-executed lineout move.
Nicholson then grabbed his second score on the hour mark – again with out-half Prendergast’s right boot supplying the assist – and teenage replacement Sam Berman‘s sharp run finished off more good work from the backs for try number four.
When questioned about the half-time team talk, McCarthy said that the main aim was to stay focused and stick to the game-plan.
We spoke at half-time about how frantic we were and we just weren’t playing the game we wanted to play.
“So, second half we came out and I think we were just a lot more focused on what we’d been planning to do all week, our game-plan and as you see it worked.
“We scored plenty of excellent tries in that second half. I think we really took the game into our hands in the second half and it worked.”
Observing from the outside, you get the sense that this is a really close-knit group of players who get on well both on and off the field. They have shared many experiences together, enjoying an unbeaten run but also coping with some sad circumstances and setbacks.
McCarthy acknowledged that there is a great bond between all members of the squad and the coaching staff. It has been the highlight of his time in the Ireland U-20 set-up.
“I think my highlight so far is just the camaraderie of the group and how close we’ve become as team-mates. Like Richie said, we’re from four different provinces so before this year not many of us really knew each other.
“So, just seeing the lads getting on so well together, seeing lads hanging out in groups that they wouldn’t even have known six months ago maybe. It’s just really, really good seeing the lads connecting.
“I think that shows on the pitch and shows how tight we are as a squad. We always fight for each other,” added the UCD and Leinster Academy hooker.