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‘Evan’s Very Professional, He Has A Presence Within The Room’ – Murphy

‘Evan’s Very Professional, He Has A Presence Within The Room’ – Murphy

Evan O'Connell, the newly-announced Ireland Under-20 Men's captain, is pictured at the PwC offices in Dublin ©INPHO/Morgan Treacy

It is all systems go for Ireland Under-20 Men’s head coach Richie Murphy and his latest crop of talented youngsters ahead of the upcoming 2024 U-20 Six Nations Championship. which begins in just over two weeks’ time.

Last season was a stellar one for the Ireland Under-20s (sponsored by PwC) as Murphy’s side secured back-to-back Grand Slam crowns before reaching the World Rugby U-20 Championship final, with their only defeat coming against an exceptional France team.

The 2022/23 group have certainly set the bar high for the new class, which includes five returning players led by newly-appointed captain Evan O’Connell, and his second row partner and recent Ulster debutant, Joe Hopes.

Hooker Danny Sheahan, the highly-rated Brian Gleeson, and Connacht Academy star Hugh Gavin, who played every minute of the 2023 Grand Slam-winning campaign, are also back for another stint at this age grade.

When asked about the pressure of expectation on the Ireland U-20s to maintain their impressive U-20 Six Nations record, Murphy explained how their main focus is on performance, week on week, rather than anything else.

“Even last year, I answered this question the same way. They’re not connected because there’s nearly a whole new team,” he told the gathered media, speaking at the squad announcement in PwC’s Dublin headquarters.

“One of the first questions I asked the group when they got together was how many of them have won a Grand Slam? Hardly any people put their hand up. So, they haven’t won anything as a team.

“It’s very much about the boring old thing about playing on the day that you’re in, trying to get through France (in the first game). If we get through France, we move on to Italy and hopefully we’ll run out of games at the end of it.

“It’s the only way I know to keep the players focused and motivated on getting better. Being a performance-based team rather than results.”

Three members of the 31-player squad have already made their senior debuts for their respective provinces. Talented full-back Ben O’Connor has made four appearances for Munster this season.

Gleeson, a real star for the Ireland U-20s last term, came off the bench against Toulon last Saturday for his seventh Munster appearance, while promising second row Hopes made his debut for Ulster, away to Connacht, in a November BKT United Rugby Championship clash.

It is invaluable experience for players so early in their career, while it also shows the level of talent coming through the IRFU Under-20 Men’s programme. Acknowledging how tough it was to narrow down the squad, Murphy commented:

What we found this year is that there are a large number of players that could represent Ireland this year at Under-20 level.

“We had to try and cut the group at some place and we made that cut at 31 at the moment. We are possibly going to add one more back into that group, over the week or two, depending on performances in the All-Ireland League.

“There are a number of guys who have missed out on tight calls. The strength in depth around the back row positions, the centres, the back-three is quite strong, because of that guys have missed out on tough calls.”

Munster Academy lock O’Connell is relishing the opportunity to lead out the team for Ireland’s opening U-20 Six Nations match against France in Aix-en-Provence on Saturday, February 3 (kick-off 9.10pm local time/8.10pm Irish time).

The 19-year-old, who stands at 6ft 7in and weighs over 17 stone, is following in the footsteps of his uncle Paul, the former Munster, Ireland and British & Irish Lions captain who is busy preparing for the Ireland Men’s own Six Nations title defence as their forwards coach.

Evan played in nine of the Ireland Under-20s’ ten games in 2023, and according to Murphy, the young UL Bohemians clubman’s leadership qualities were evident during last year’s successful campaign.

“Evan was part of our leadership group last year and although he didn’t start that many games, he had a very important role in making sure that when the guys were coming onto the park later on that they were focused and ready to go.

“He showed some good leadership last year. He’s very professional, he does the daily grind of being a professional rugby player really well. Since he’s come back into camp, he has a presence within the room and is a nice calm head as well.

“I’m looking forward to working with Evan over the next couple of weeks and making sure that he’s ready for what will be a really tough test when we get to France.”

Like the vast majority of the selected squad, O’Connell has enjoyed a series of run-outs this season in the Energia All-Ireland League, which provides the platform for players straight out of school to make that initial step up to senior rugby.

It helps them get to grips with the physicality and robustness needed at this level, allowing them to progress their rugby development through frequent game-time.

Those match minutes have been important for players pushing for national selection, with Murphy explaining: “One of the things that we said at the start of the year was that we wanted all our Under-20 players playing AIL.

“It’s a very different game to what we play in the 20s, but the ability to go out week in and week out and perform against older men in a physical encounter has been very important.

“All the players will comment on the physicality of the AIL and we want to play with speed as well. That’s probably the balance part of it.

“They are getting the physicality when they are in the AIL. We want to bring them to the speed, and the mixture of both is where we’ll hopefully be before the Six Nations.”

The freshly-announced Ireland Under-20 squad trained with Clontarf’s AIL team earlier in the week, and they will move on to Belfast for a short training camp next week, which will include a session with Queen’s University at Kingspan Stadium.

Willie Faloon (defence and lineout coach) and Aaron Dundon (scrum and contact coach) are continuing in their coaching roles, while the backs coach position – vacated by Mark Sexton who now works with Connacht Rugby – has been filled by former Ireland international Ian Keatley.

Noting the impact that Keatley has already made, Murphy added: “Mark moved on and is doing a really good job in Connacht. Ian has come into the group, loads of experience himself as a player representing Ireland, Munster, Connacht, and Leinster.

“He’s been a really good addition, really good with the players, one-on-one conversations with the backs, and has hit the ground running. He has come in and added quite a lot, to be fair to him.”