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A Disappointing Finish For Ireland U-20s, But ‘An Incredible Season To Be Proud Of’

A Disappointing Finish For Ireland U-20s, But ‘An Incredible Season To Be Proud Of’

Head coach Richie Murphy and captain Gus McCarthy are pictured together in the aftermath of Ireland's final defeat to France in Cape Town ©INPHO/SteveHaagSports/Darren Stewart

It was not to be for the Ireland Under-20s (sponsored by PwC) as they suffered a 50-14 defeat to a brilliant France team in the World Rugby U-20 Championship final in Cape Town.

Despite it being a gut-wrenching way for Richie Murphy’s youngsters to close out an unforgettable season, Ireland were unable to keep up with an increasingly dominant French side that scored five unanswered second half tries.

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Fintan Gunne’s early snipe for the line, coupled with the sight of John Devine crashing over on the half hour mark, gave the U-20 Six Nations Grand Slam champions plenty of encouragement.

However, with Gunne’s opposite number Baptiste Jauneau and Mastercard player-of-the-match Marko Gazzotti both standing out, les Bleuets were clinical – racking up 50 points from 11 visits to the opposition 22 – as they avenged their Six Nations loss in Cork.

Ireland still had some impressive performances on the night from the likes of Ruadhan Quinn, Gunne, James McNabney, Brian Gleeson and Devine, and falling at the final hurdle should not take away from what has been an engrossing campaign.

They finished 2023/24 with a second successive U-20 Grand Slam and World Championship silver, matching Ireland’s best ever finish at the global showpiece from 2016. Out of ten games they won eight, drew one and lost one, scoring 395 points and 55 tries in total.

Head coach Murphy was understandably proud of his players’ efforts across the three weeks of matches in South Africa, while also acknowledging that France are very worthy champions.

“It’s disappointing obviously when you get to a final, you only ever want to win. We go home with a silver medal which we are extremely proud about, but today was about the final and France were deserved winners,” he said.

They played really good rugby and we weren’t quite at the level today. I said last week that I was proud of this team before they ever came to Cape Town. They’ve built on that over the course of the year going back to when we started in October.

“They came here as boys and I think they’ll leave as very mature young men who have an incredible experience as a group.

“I’m extremely proud of Gus (McCarthy), our captain, and the rest of the guys. They’ve been incredible to work with.”

There are players of huge potential coming through the IRFU’s age grade pathways, and captain Gus McCarthy and his team-mates can take heart from the 2016 team and how they responded to a heavy World U-20 final defeat to England.

A good number of that year’s Ireland U-20 squad went on to gain senior honours with both province and country, most notably James Ryan, Andrew Porter, Jacob Stockdale, Hugo Keenan and Jimmy O’Brien who are all part of the Ireland squad currently training ahead of the Rugby World Cup.

Developing future stars of the game is obviously a key objective for Murphy and his fellow coaches, but with a clutch of the current squad eligible again next season, the Ireland U-20s’ class of 2024 should hopefully be a strong force too.

Ireland’s second place finish will improve their World U-20 Championship seeding considerably, following a few years where they struggled for summer form, ending up ninth, 11th and eighth overall.

Ahead of his 20th birthday on Sunday week, McCarthy was honest in his assessment of where it went wrong for Ireland. He acknowledged that the French got the upper hand at the breakdown and played at a ferocious intensity.

“We came into the game knowing that the French are very dangerous especially around that breakdown area. We got opened up a few times around there. Credit to the French for playing some great rugby,” said the UCD and Leinster Academy hooker.

“I’m very proud of the lads. We kept fighting like we always do, but there are some things we didn’t get right today. I wish we had done better but that’s rugby.

“I haven’t played any team like that. The intensity they play at is so exhilarating and so hard to play against.”

Given the tragic death of their team-mate Jack Oliver’s father Greig, and the shocking passing of both Andrew O’Donnell and Max Wall, two St. Michael’s College pupils, the character and emotional strength of this Ireland U-20 group has shone through.

Having played their hearts out for each other and those who lost their lives, McCarthy explained: “We spoke to the boys there and we said, ‘We can’t leave with our heads down, we have to leave South Africa with our heads held high’.

“I’m very proud of the boys. I’m so grateful to have worked with such a good squad, including the management. It’s been a pleasure. It hasn’t always been easy but we’ve always held our heads high and kept going to the next job.”

A turning point in tonight’s decider came when Ireland loosehead Paddy McCarthy was sin-binned just before the break. France took control while he was sidelined, initially missing out on a try before scoring twice in quick succession on the restart.

Speaking about Pierre Jivou’s maul try that increased the Irish deficit to 24-14, Murphy conceded: “I think the momentum just goes against you. We know that when you play France once they get their tails up, they’re a very difficult side to play against.

“You go to the pivotal moment in the game, probably the 41st minute when the maul try goes in. That’s a big turning point in the game because we’re very much in the game until that stage.

“We’re down a man, trying to get him back on the pitch. He’s going to miss the opening eight minutes of the second half. It’s a key moment. You need all eight forwards on the pitch but that’s part of rugby.”

Leaking four more tries, including three during the final 12 minutes, rubbed salt into the wounds of an Ireland squad that had physically emptied the tank come the closing stages.

France’s greater levels of experience showed, with 13 of their starting XV already having made their Top 14 debuts. Teenage scrum half Jauneau has also had two Heineken Champions Cup starts for Clermont Auvergne.

While visibly frustrated with how their final match together had panned out, McCarthy still acknowledged that it had been a great year as a whole for Murphy’s charges.

The young Dubliner, who scored three tries during the pool stages of the tournament, was honoured to lead the group. He paid tribute to the coaches, the backroom staff and the IRFU for their backing throughout.

It’s been an incredible season. It just didn’t finish the way we wanted it to. If you’d told me at the start of the season that I’d captain a team to a Grand Slam and a World Cup final, I wouldn’t have believed you.

“The coaching staff and squad is second to none. I’ve never worked with such enthusiastic staff, everything is so well run. Credit to the IRFU for that and the coaches themselves. It’s been unbelievable.

“I didn’t know all the lads when we started in October but we’ve all become brothers, we’re such a tight squad. It’s just really disappointing how it finished.

“We have to keep our heads held high. We fought and we gave it our best out there and maybe just didn’t perform how we wanted to on the day. But, this season as a whole has been incredible.”

Returning the favour, Murphy hailed the former Blackrock College Leinster Schools Senior Cup-winning captain for the manner in which he has led the team over the course of the season.

“Gus is an incredible leader. He leads from the front every day in training. He’s been a dream to work with.

“He’s been an incredible influence on the team, even though he’s only 19. He’s mature beyond his years,” he added.