The anticipation is reaching a fever pitch ahead of the World Rugby Under-20 Championship final between the Ireland U-20s (sponsored by PwC) and fellow unbeaten team, France, in Cape Town.
Friday’s decider at the Athlone Sports Stadium (kick-off 7pm local time/6pm Irish time – live on Virgin Media Two/World Rugby platforms where there is no local broadcaster) is an opportunity for Richie Murphy’s youngsters to write their names into Irish Rugby folklore.
No Ireland team has ever won the World Rugby U-20 Championship – the 2016 side fell at the final hurdle, while back in the Under-21 era, Ireland were also beaten finalists in 2004. Declan Kidney’s Ireland U-19s won the then FIRA World Cup in 1998.
Having already tasted Grand Slam success, Murphy’s young squad are aiming to follow that up with global silverware as they bid to win the U-20 Six Nations and World U-20 Championship titles in the same year, a feat only England (2013) and France (2018) have achieved before.
Heading into such a huge game like this, there is often a mixture of both nerves and excitement. Ireland U-20 assistant coach Aaron Dundon, who oversees their scrum and contact skills, says they have reached this stage in good fettle.
“It’s been really enjoyable this week after obviously last week. The players have bonded even more after the last couple of weeks,” said the former Leinster hooker.
“Making it to a final brings an energy in itself. As coaches we sit back and watch it evolve. It’s a credit to the players and all the backroom staff that have kept the boys focused on what’s ahead.”
The courage and the resilience this Ireland Under-20 group have shown over the course of the tournament has really captured the hearts of everyone watching back home.
It has been a difficult couple of weeks for everyone involved, dealing with the news of the shock deaths of St. Michael’s College pupils Andrew O’Donnell and Max Wall while on holiday in Ios, before Greig Oliver, the father of Ireland U-20 scrum half Jack, tragically died in a paragliding accident in Cape Town the day before their final pool match against Fiji.
Dundon hailed all the support they have been getting both at home and in South Africa, explaining: “There is definitely a lot of support back home, but we’ve been pretty impressed with the support we’ve gotten over here as well.
A lot of the parents and family members have come over, and even a good few of the South Africans have really gotten behind us which is class.
“We’ve started to get a few messages in from the Ireland senior team as well. We were shown them this morning which was brilliant and will help drive us a bit more. We’ve been really thriving on the support, it’s been awesome.
“We got a couple of messages this morning from Iain Henderson and Peter O’Mahony, they put a video together which was class. Obviously, there was a couple of messages up on the Irish Rugby Twitter the other day of a few boys sending their best wishes as well.”
In the only personnel change to the starting XV from the 31-12 semi-final win over South Africa, Ulster’s James McNabney returns from suspension at blindside flanker. Diarmuid Mangan reverts to the second row.
Murphy’s charges are on an 11-match unbeaten run, including the 34-all draw with England in their tournament opener. They have scored 21 tries across the first four rounds, already three more than their previous best of 18 in 2019.
Dundon said the presence of the players’ families has made an impact both at the stadiums and on down days, providing crucial support for these 19 and 20-year-olds when they need it the most.
“It’s been massive for the players to be able to get out of the hotel and go have dinner with their families, which you need because we’ve been in this hotel for probably three-and-a-half, four weeks by the end of it.
“So, it makes them get out and clear the head a bit with their family. That’s really important. Just seeing the families come into the hotel every now and then and you’re able to chat to them and the support on game day as well.
“It’s huge. They get so vocal – it’s not many of them, but you can hear them, you know, which is pretty classy. The South Africans too, you’re walking down the street and they’re asking questions and saying, ‘Hope you win’, which is awesome.”
An intriguing battle with France awaits, in what will be only the fourth all-European World U-20 final since the competition began in 2008. Ireland lost 45-21 to England in the 2016 decider, while England and Wales played each other in 2013, and France faced England in 2018.
The Ireland U-20s have had some tight victories over les Bleuets in the last couple of years, most recently in the U-20 Six Nations in February. Out-half Sam Prendergast landed a late penalty in a hard-fought, three-try 33-31 triumph in Cork.
The Gus McCarthy-led squad memorably went on to complete the clean sweep, holding their nerve particularly well to clinch the title against England at Musgrave Park. Roll on four months and that Grand Slam-winning experience should stand to them tomorrow night.
“That England game, the last game of the Six Nations was kind of like a final for us, If we didn’t win it, that was it. We wouldn’t have won the Grand Slam or the Six Nations,” admitted Dundon.
“Being final-ready in that game is definitely going to help the boys for tomorrow because we’re a bit more prepared and we know the pressures that are involved, the week leading up to it. It’s a big help for us and I think it’s going to help the boys.”
With the vast majority of the Ireland squad that came to South Africa battle-hardened from the U-20 Six Nations campaign, they have also thankfully avoided some of the cruel injuries that befell their predecessors at the summertime tournament.
Noting the cohesiveness of the current crop which has made them a very hard team to beat and break down, Dundon credits the efforts of the medical and S&C staff in allowing the squad to stay fit and develop throughout the season.
It started off with the camps before the Six Nations, just seeing the same groups getting together, building nicely, and because it’s the same group of players has definitely helped us to get where we are.
“It’s been really helpful that we haven’t lost many players over the course of this tournament and the U-20 Six Nations.
“It’s probably a credit to the medical and S&C staff who have been able to get the guys able to train all the time, able to get them playing all the time. We haven’t lost many players and that’s been so important for us.”
France are hoping to win their third World U-20 Championship crown in a row. They will undoubtedly provide the toughest challenge to date for McCarthy and his team-mates, who scored tries through Paddy McCarthy, Hugh Gavin and Brian Gleeson the last time these sides met.
Tomorrow’s rematch is a game that really could go either way. Les Bleuets are favoured by the bookmakers giving they have won all of their fixtures so far in South Africa, top scoring with 29 tries. They dominated the second half of their semi-final against England.
Referring back to the free-scoring contest on the all-weather pitch in Cork, Dundon admitted: “The last time we played the French, we got ahead quite quickly (leading 20-7). In the first half, we were able to put a few points on the board – we probably left a bit out there as well.
“But one thing we can probably take away is that we can’t let the game get too loose. The French like that. Especially at Musgrave during the Six Nations, they came back in that second half and started putting us under a lot of pressure when we didn’t look after the ball.
“We kind of played into their hands a bit. So, sticking to our systems, the way we want to play, making sure we look after the ball when we have it, making sure it doesn’t go loose and play into their hands.”