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McLaughlin Striving For 80-Minute Performance As Ireland U-20s Draw Record Cork Crowd

McLaughlin Striving For 80-Minute Performance As Ireland U-20s Draw Record Cork Crowd

Ireland Under-20 winger Hugo McLaughlin makes a break during their second round win over Italy at Virgin Media Park in Cork ©INPHO/Ben Brady

Hugo McLaughlin is part of an unchanged back-line as the Ireland Under-20s (sponsored by PwC) go in search of their third win of the Championship at home to Wales tonight.

Richie Murphy’s youngsters continue to be a big draw in Cork, with a record crowd of 8,400 set to watch them resume their U-20 Six Nations campaign at Virgin Media Park, where they edged out Italy 23-22 last time out.

Having squeezed back in front through Sean Edogbo’s late try, the Ireland U-20s tightened up in defence to deny the Marco Scalabrin-inspired Italians the opportunity to respond right at the death.

Their first competitive run-out on Leeside had not gone completely to plan, but relieved to pocket four hard-earned Championship points, there were some valuable lessons learned according to McLaughlin.

“The main thing is just being switched on for the whole 80 minutes, which was a bit of a learning from Italy,” said the Lansdowne clubman, speaking ahead of the visit of Wales.

“We’ve just got to focus for 80 minutes and play the best we can. We are expecting some big boys, especially a few of their backs and back rows, big ball carriers.

“Our main focus is when they have the ball, just get off the line and make some big shots. Their backs are good, against Scotland and England they scored some good tries, running from deep.”

With a number of the same players involved, McLaughlin has fond memories of facing Wales with the Ireland Under-18 Schools team two years ago. They ran out 46-26 winners of an U-18 Six Nations Festival fixture in Marcoussis, with McLaughlin scoring an intercept try.

The 19-year-old winger is anticipating a strong performance from this Wales squad, led by Dragons centre Harri Ackerman. He is clearly relishing another opportunity to don the green jersey and play for his country in front of the home support.

“It’s special. You know how much it means when you make your debut against France and your phone is blowing up after,” he explained.

“That’s when you know it’s special when you have everyone congratulating you. You take a step back and think wow, and realise what you’ve just done.

“There are a lot of similarities in 18s and 19s, being in camp, a lot of the same lads, getting into those routines that are really getting you ready for 20s. But it is a huge step up at 20s, everything, physicality-wise.

We saw that in the French game and the one against Italy, it’s a huge step up. Obviously, we are growing but other teams have grown exponentially as well over the last few years. That is the main difference.

“I know lots of the lads are nervous before games, and I am nervous, but I’m more excited to play. I was that way in school too (with Gonzaga College).

“Before the game going out in front of the crowd and playing with your mates and the whole school in front of you. It’s just excitement, and I can’t wait to get on to the pitch and show what I can do.”

It has been an unforgettable twelve months for McLaughlin, whose name will forever be associated with the first Gonzaga team to win the Leinster Schools Senior Cup.

Playing at full-back, his consistent performances for Gonzaga earned him age-grade representative honours with both Leinster and Ireland, culminating in a deserved call-up to the Ireland Under-20 Six Nations squad this season.

Playing his part in his school winning their maiden Senior Cup title, and beating Blackrock College 35-31 in a classic final on St. Patrick’s Day in the process, will certainly live long in the memory.

“It was incredible, to be honest,” admitted McLaughlin. “I mean we got to the final in 5th year, the year before and we lost out to ‘Rock. It was great to beat them in the final the year after.

“Being the first team to do it in ‘Zaga history is incredible, people coming up to you that day who are generations above just being like, ‘you’ve made my day, I’ve been waiting years for this’. It was incredible.

“Playing with my brother (Luke) on the team and all my mates, I couldn’t have asked for anything better to be honest.”

Declan Fassbender has had a big influence on his development. The current Lansdowne head coach guided Gonzaga to last March’s famous Senior Cup triumph and has been widely credited for instilling that winning mentality at the Ranelagh school.

Fresh out of school, McLaughlin joined Fassbender at Lansdowne last summer and made a try-scoring Energia All-Ireland League debut against Young Munster in October. He has a lot of admiration for his coach for helping him to make the leap to senior club and U-20 international rugby.

“He has been great. I came into the senior set-up in 4th year, I was working with him for three years in Gonzaga. He’s a great coach, especially a backs coach,” he said of Fassbender.

“He’s harsh at times, as I’m sure lots of people know, but he always has your best interest at heart. If he’s harsh, he just knows you can be better, he can see the potential.

“Coming out of school and into Lansdowne it’s nice to have a familiar face around, continuing that journey.”

The speedy back-three specialist is eyeing up more silverware at the end of the U-20 Six Nations, but knows that Murphy’s young side will have to lift their performance levels if they are to continue on the winning trail.

Tonight McLaughlin is hoping to enjoy the satisfaction of a solid, well-earned victory rather than the sheer relief they experienced when the final whistle blew against Italy a fortnight ago.

“Oh God, yeah,” he recalls of that tense finish in the last round. “I think I came off in the 65th minute and I was biting my nails for the last 15! There was so much relief.

“Even when Sean went over (for his try) but then they got the ball back, it was just nerves, nerves, nerves. We’ve just got to get it out of our heads, it’s a new game on Friday and just play as best we can.”