Ireland U20s Head Coach Richie Murphy acknowledged it was a 'difficult process' to assemble a squad of 34 for the upcoming U20 Six Nations Championship in Wales. Starting from Saturday week - a competition opener against Scotland - the 2019 champions will face a hectic schedule of five games in just 24 days, all of them taking place at Cardiff Arms Park.
Traditionally, a summer window would see this age-grade outfit competing at the World Rugby Under 20 Championships. However, Covid-19 has adversely affected the rugby calendar for underage international rugby with the Ireland U20s not having seen action since February 2020.
With players from all four Provinces coming together from their own separate bubbles (not to mention the IQ Rugby duo of Liam Bishop and Chay Mullins), Murphy and his coaches have encountered a number of different challenges up to this point.
“It probably goes back to Christmas when the guys came in first. You have got guys coming in with a massive difference in relation to what kind of training they have done. So the levels of fitness the lads have come in with has been very different. We’ve guys in academies obviously coming together in the latter part of it,” Murphy remarked at today’s squad announcement.
“Some guys were working remotely so that was difficult, but the group came together quite well and quite quickly. The lads applied themselves really well and what we had to do was make sure that our training was not going to put guys in jeopardy. We let them build up into it and took the relevant precautions along the way.”
Due to the absence of Energia All-Ireland League and the limited game-time afforded to Academy teams, the majority of players within the Ireland U20s camp have seen very little competitive action in the past year or so.
The likes of captain Alex Kendellen, as well as Leinster pair Alex Soroka and Tim Corkery, recently made their senior debuts at Provincial level but, for the most part, this squad of players has been out of the spotlight for the past 16 months.
In order to get them up to the level that will be required to tackle their Six Nations rivals, Murphy has had to be innovative in how he tailors their training programme at the IRFU High Performance Centre.
“Definitely quite a few of them might have played in early September [in the Energia Community Series] when rugby was back on, but from that point until Christmas time they had not played at all. Within the camps that we’ve had, what we tried to do was put a game element into that.
“Whether it be 40 minutes or 80 minutes of rugby. We have tried to build them up slowly with their game minutes, but also then the intensity of their training minutes. We feel we are ready to compete at the level they are going into.”
Technically speaking, Ireland will be seeking to defend their crown in the Welsh capital having secured a Grand Slam two years ago. This was the last Six Nations Championship to be played in full, with the 2020 edition of the competition brought to a premature halt owing to the rising threat of the Coronavirus pandemic.
Ireland had already completed the Triple Crown by the end of the third round last year and needed just one win from their two remaining games against Italy and France to claim another Six Nations crown. Given the success earned at this grade in recent years, Murphy will be eager for his charges to keep Ireland top of the pile while not losing sight of the developmental aspect of U20s international rugby.
“It is always a balance of performance and results because you are going into a competition and you are obviously trying to win something. Along the way, U20s rugby is probably the pinnacle of the age grade system in Ireland.
“Coming through the schools and into Provincial academies, and development pathways, and this is the pinnacle of it. From here guys go into the big bad world of adult rugby. We want to be competitive. We are very much aware it is a developmental tool as well so it is a balance between the two.”