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Devine: We’ll Go After France In Our Own Way

Devine: We’ll Go After France In Our Own Way

Centre John Devine is pictured on the attack during the Ireland Under-20s' 34-all draw with England in Paarl at the start of the World Rugby U-20 Championship ©INPHO/Darren Stewart

Ballinasloe native John Devine has been at the heart of it all in the Ireland Under-20s’ midfield, making the number 12 jersey his own in what has already been a memorable season.

He has started all nine of their games in 2023, with the last one coming tonight on the biggest stage of them all – the World Rugby Under-20 Championship final against France in Cape Town (kick-off 7pm local time/6pm Irish time).

Winners of the last two World U-20 Championships in 2018 and 2019, France’s current team have looked like a force to be reckoned with, brushing aside any challengers that have crossed their path in South Africa.

They have won all four of their matches at the tournament so far, dominating New Zealand during the pool stages before a powerful second half surge saw them end England’s hopes in a runaway semi-final win.

Devine knows it is a tough task ahead of the Ireland U-20s (sponsored by PwC), but the ever-present centre has full belief that Richie Murphy’s young guns are the better of the two sides.

“They obviously know how to win but we’ll go after them in our own way, sticking to our system. They have certain threats as individuals but I feel like we’re collectively a better team,” he said.

“We’re more connected as a team compared to the Under-20 Six Nations. Watching back the Six Nations, you’d probably think it’s two different teams in how much we’ve improved in certain areas.

“Just collectively we’ve come together much better on and off the pitch and that’s really helped us.”

Like his older brother, scrum half Matthew (21), John has come up through the ranks at Ballinasloe Rugby Club and Garbally College. They won the Connacht Schools Senior Cup together in 2020 before the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The pair, who more recently play for Galway Corinthians in the Energia All-Ireland League, joined the Connacht Academy together last year. Matthew was fresh from winning the U-20 Six Nations Grand Slam with Ireland.

The 19-year-old John enjoyed a Grand Slam win of his own earlier this year. Undoubtedly it will be a dream come true for him to play in a World Championship final, but he will not be overawed by the occasion.

I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t thought about it. But a big thing with our team is being moment-focused and even (on Friday night) we’ll take every play at a time.

“We won’t get too fixated on the end result. We’ll go through our process and hopefully come out the right end of it.”

Confidence is high in camp given Ireland have come to South Africa and extended their unbeaten run to 11 games. They are the only team to have beaten France this year, with a late Sam Prendergast penalty seeing them prevail 33-31 in Cork.

Ireland were the highest points scorers in this season’s U-20 Six Nations with 239 and were the joint top try scorers with France (32), picking up four try-scoring bonus points.

Continuing that trend into the summer months, Murphy’s side have scored 142 points in their last four fixtures – 11 more and they will break their record of 152 for a single World U-20 Championship in 2016.

This group of players have certainly been on a journey over the last three weeks. There have been some special wins, especially those second half surges to overcome both Australia and South Africa.

However, their campaign has unfortunately been touched by the tragic circumstances surrounding the deaths of St. Michael’s College pupils Andrew O’Donnell and Max Wall while on holiday in Ios, and the devastating loss of Greig Oliver, father of Ireland U-20 scrum half Jack, in a paragliding accident in Cape Town.

The character of Murphy’s young squad has shone through, with their courage and resilience really coming to the fore and gaining them support from far and wide.

Speaking on behalf of his team-mates, Devine has been taken aback by the support they have received from home and also from tournament hosts South Africa.

“You hear and get texts every other day from people you wouldn’t even think would be watching the games, and you’d see other things on social media and people giving you support.

“And as ‘Dundo’ (assistant coach Aaron Dundon) said, over here, the support from the locals has been special so we’ve been feeling everyone’s support and we’re thankful for that.”

Ireland were pushed hard by France on Musgrave Park’s 3G pitch back in February, with the hosts leading 20-7 at one stage before les Bleuets hit back to lead by a single point on two occasions. Devine is not reading too much into that game.

“You can take certain things from it (the teams’ last meeting), but since it’s in South Africa and we don’t have a home crowd, that’s what changes it,” said the Galway youngster.

“Different personnel on both teams changes it. The main thing is it’s a World Cup final. That was the second game in our Six Nations campaign so you don’t know how big it was going to be, so the World Cup final kind of changes things like that.”

While his sibling Matthew was part of Ireland’s 2022 U-20 Grand Slam success, he did not get the chance to play in a World U-20 Championship due to it not being staged last year. The phone calls between the Devine brothers are not all about rugby.

“I was on the phone to Matt the other day talking to him, not even about rugby. Just about how he’s getting on, kind of taking my mind away from it,” added John.