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Faloon: The Aviva Open Session Was Brilliant, The Players Got Loads Out Of It

Faloon: The Aviva Open Session Was Brilliant, The Players Got Loads Out Of It

Willie Faloon, pictured with fellow assistant coach Aaron Dundon, has been part of the Ireland Under-20 coaching group since December 2021 ©INPHO/Ben Brady

Bath’s Recreation Ground is the venue for Friday’s top of the table clash between the Ireland Under-20s (sponsored by PwC) and their English counterparts. The winning team will remain on course for a Grand Slam heading into the final weekend of the 2024 Championship.

The Ireland Under-20s are looking to build on their wins over France (37-31), Italy (23-22), and Wales (43-8), from the first three rounds of the U-20 Six Nations. They are currently second in the standings on 14 points, just one point behind England.

England’s Mark Mapletoft is hoping his charges can become the first team to beat Ireland in the Under-20 Six Nations since 2021. They drew a big crowd in Bath for their 28-7 win over Wales last month, and an even bigger one is anticipated tomorrow night.

Ireland U-20 assistant coach Willie Faloon expects a difficult encounter, dismissing any talk of a potential third consecutive Grand Slam. Two of the sides’ last three meetings have resulted in a one-point Ireland win and a draw.

“We’ve two games left. We always take it one game at a time. We are not thinking of anything further down the line,” said defence specialist Faloon, speaking during a media call on Wednesday evening.

“On its own it’s a huge game to go over to the Rec. That’s our focus for now, it’s that simple. We’re totally aware of it (the Rec) as a real old-school rugby ground. England will have a massive support and it will be hostile, but it’s an exciting challenge.”

With three successive bonus point victories, England have made a strong start to Mapletoft’s first U-20 Six Nations campaign. Captain Finn Carnduff and Asher Opoku-Fordjour provide plenty of experience up front, with 25 U-20 caps between them.

Amongst their changes this week are Olamide Sodeke and Junior Kpoku, the returning locks who are both over two metres tall and weigh in at a combined 239kg. With the 6ft 10in Alan Spicer, Ireland have their own powerhouse second row slotting back in.

“We’re under no illusions they’re very strong in that (tight five) area, and the couple of second rows coming back in will give them a good bit of weight but they’re a quality outfit so we know there’s a big challenge coming there,” admitted Faloon.

“(Scrum coach) Aaron (Dundon) has really prepping the guys well so we will just have to go out and do it. The fact that we are three games into the tournament as this stage we have a fair bit of footage on them.

“Sometimes that can be off-putting because you have so much footage to look at. The two teams have come up against each other five times in the last three years between Italy, the Junior World Cup (and the other Six Nations tournaments), so we know each other pretty well.”

Ireland-England clashes at this age-grade are generally high-scoring affairs, with Leinster’s Aitzol King touching down twice during 2022’s 42-27 win at the home of Saracens, before Ireland won a nine-try thriller, 37-36, during the U-20 Six Nations Summer Series that year.

2023 produced a 36-24 Grand Slam-winning clinching victory for the Gus McCarthy-led hosts in Cork, and a ten-try 34-all draw at the start of the World Rugby U-20 Championship in South Africa.

Ireland’s build-up to their trip to Bath included going up against the Ireland senior squad at last week’s open training session at the Aviva Stadium (pictured above). Faloon said it is always a hugely beneficial experience for the young players and the coaches too.

We’ve been working with the guys since October and have been in a lot of high-pressure situations, like going over to France, and even just in the last couple of weeks going down to play in front of our home crowds, there is always that little bit of pressure.

“The Aviva open session was really good for us. They are always getting those pressure opportunities and it’s just about taking learnings out of those. I think the lads are in a really good place, they are calm, we have a plan, and we’ll see how we react when it comes to it.

“It (the Aviva open session) was brilliant. I have been involved in the last three years and every time we do it we get something massive out of it. It’s just a great opportunity for the guys, they get loads out of it, and the coaching group do too.”

The big selection news from the Ireland U-20 camp is the return of Spicer to the engine room, alongside captain Evan O’Connell. Sean Edogbo, who scored a try in both of their last two games, drops to the replacements bench.

Alex Usanov, Danny Sheahan, and Jacob Boyd combine in the front row for tomorrow’s penultimate round tie. The starting back-line, marshalled by the Championship’s leading points scorer Jack Murphy (36 points), stays unchanged as it has for the entire tournament so far.

In terms of the forwards, rotation has been a consistent feature in Murphy’s selections during the 2024 Championship, especially with untimely injuries picked up by Andrew Sparrow and Brian Gleeson forcing some reshuffling.

As well as coping with injuries, the coaching staff have spoken about their eagerness to create strength in depth and grow the levels of experience across the squad. Faloon touched on this when speaking about this week’s changes in personnel.

“Sean (Edogbo) is dropping down to the bench. He was brilliant for us over the last couple of games. We started Alan (Spicer) (pictured above) over in France and he did a really good job over there. There’s a little bit of rotation.

“We’ve rotated a few players throughout (the tournament so far) and again, we’re building experience. Again, probably picking guys to do jobs.”

Talismanic number 8 Gleeson has not fully recovered from the ankle injury he sustained during the first round triumph away to France. That means Shannon’s Luke Murphy, a powerful ball carrier himself, continues at the base of the scrum.

“We’re trying to strengthen depth, and we’re quite lucky we have a strong squad this year in regards to the 30, 35 or 40 guys around us. Again, it gives us really good competition. Gleeson is a massive loss, but we do have decent strength around us,” added Faloon.