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‘There’s Such Good Competition In The Group’ – Keatley

Ian Keatley 3/2/2024

Ian Keatley, who has joined the Ireland Under-20 Men's coaching group, is pictured during the warm-up in Aix-en-Provence last Saturday night ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan

There are three changes to the starting pack for the Ireland Under-20s’ second round clash with Italy at Virgin Media Park on Friday (kick-off 7.15pm – live on Virgin Media Two). Tickets are available to buy here from Ticketmaster.ie.

The Ireland U-20s (sponsored by PwC) will be without the services of the talismanic Brian Gleeson, who is nursing an ankle injury following last Saturday’s impressive 37-31 bonus point win over France in Aix-en-Provence.

Shannon’s Luke Murphy, who featured off the bench last week, replaces the Tipperary man at number 8, while the other two changes come in the front row.

Ulster Academy prop Jacob Boyd, son of former Ulster player Clem, takes over from the injured Andrew Sparrow at tighthead. Stephen Smyth, who captained the Ireland U-19s against Japan last year, starts at hooker in place of Danny Sheahan, who moves to the replacements.

IQ Rugby recruit Patreece Bell gets promoted to the bench this week, with Sean Edogbo, the younger brother of Munster second row Edwin, also poised to make his Ireland Under-20 debut.

The Ireland Under-20s’ new attack coach Keatley, who took over from Mark Sexton, the now-assistant attack and skills coach at Connacht, explained how they have trust in the whole squad to step up and make an impact if they are needed.

“It’s a 30-man squad and we do want to give a lot of guys a chance,” he said. “Some (of the changes) are enforced through injury – Brian is waiting on a scan today, to get the results back. He had a bit of an ankle problem. We’ll just wait and see.

“A few guys were deserving of their chance and there’s such good competition in the group, that when we do have selection meetings, they go on a long time. We want to give the lads the respect they deserve.”

The former Ireland senior international, who won an Under-20 Six Nations Grand Slam with the 2007 side, was delighted to start the campaign on such a high against France last weekend. He praised the character and resilience of the players.

“There are so many different aspects (to be happy about), so many different battles we went out to win. I think the fact that it was such a hostile environment, it was such a good experience for these lads at U-20 level to experience that.

“The fact that we went behind (at 21-17), the fact we kept playing the style of rugby we wanted to play, the fact that the bench came in and made such an impact, and the guys who were U-20s last year really stepped up.

“Brian Gleeson, Joe Hopes, Hugh Gavin, they had a massive impact on the match, Evan O’Connell too as captain.

“It was incredible for those guys to step up, and then the new guys getting their experience and stamping their mark. Everyone had an impact on the match which is unbelievable.”

The U-20 Six Nations Championship continues on Friday, with Italy making just one personnel change from their 36-11 defeat to England. Cesare Zucconi comes into the back row, Piero Gritti reverts to the lock position, and captain Jacopo Botturi has recovered from a knee injury to start at number 8.

Richie Murphy’s youngsters got a taste of what this Italian outfit bring to the table in their warm-up match before Christmas when a dominant first half performance was enough to earn the Ireland U-20s a 35-29 victory at the UCD Bowl.

Nonetheless, the Azzurrini flexed their muscles at scrum time on that occasion, while also showing glimpses of how threatening their back-line can be. Keatley is expecting another keenly-contested tussle on Leeside.

“I think at underage level, Italy have been quite successful over the last couple of years – it’s an area they’ve targeted. They know if they want to be successful further down the line then they need to improve their underage.

We played Italy around two months ago in UCD, where it was a one-score game in the end. Then they played France, the same French team we played last week, around a month ago and actually beat them (22-18 in Viadana).

“It’s not a formality at all, this is a very good Italian team with a lot of good players in it. Italy, if they can get their tails up, they’re very formidable.

“They have a lot of really good athletes in that team that we’ve taken note of. Also, we’re trying to concentrate on our own game for this weekend.”