Connacht's academy has been producing some fantastic players recently, so it's no wonder than the head of the academy Nigel Carolan, is finally getting recognised. His promotion to U20s head coach after Mike Ruddock stepped down is a huge boost for Ireland underage rugby.
Carolan has a track record of developing players, and he is inheriting a lot of talent in this year's group. He is ably assisted by Colin McEntee, and both Carolan and McEntee were the coaches of this class of player last year with the Ireland U19s. The coaches and players are familiar with one another then, and so far, there can't be too many complaints about the selection of the squad unlike in previous years.
Here is a breakdown of the squad, and what to expect from this year's crop of Ireland U20s.
Ireland U20 Squad Breakdown
Jeremy Loughman is the first of X from last year's Blackrock SCT. The powerful prop has been heralded for a while since his performances in the Leinster Senior Cup. Loughman is capable of playing on both sides of the scrum and has experience with the Leinster A team this year. He's a likely candidate for a full academy place for next season after his Leinster A, and could well end up as a tighthead in the future.
Michael Lagan is a similarly heralded prop from Ulster. Lagan has represented Ulster and Ireland all the way through the age grades joining fellow front rowers Sean McNulty and Oisin Heffernan at U18s and U19s. Lagan was on the Ulster U20 team last year as a sub, and is already in the Ulster academy.
One player to miss out that could well be seen in the event of an emergency is Leinster U19 prop Andrew Porter. The St. Andrew's past pupil has a big future ahead of him
Sean McNulty is one of only four Munster representatives in the squad. Tall for a hooker at over 6', McNulty is a big unit and his experience playing during last year's Six Nations will help him win the fight for the position over Ulster's Zac McCall. Both hookers are mobile enough to be included in Ireland's U19 7's squad last summer, that also featured Harrison Brewer, Greg O'Shea and Jack Cullen from this squad.
McNulty has demonstrated his ability in the loose along with props Heffernan and Lagan in the Ireland U18s below:
Oisin Heffernan is another of 11 players with U20 international experience already in the squad. The Roscrea prop will be the cornerstone of the scrum, and will be looking to fulfill his undoubted potential. Conan O'Donnell is the second tighthead in the squad. The U19 Connacht prop is an outstanding operator in the tight, and rarely gives away any penalties. The Summerhill prop quietly goes about his business in an impressive manner.
Ireland's second row options feature two Leinster options, a Connacht workhorse and Ulster academy player Alexander Thompson.
When Ireland played Australia in an U19 friendly in December 2013, David O'Connor and Alex Thompson were the chosen second row pairing. O'Connor and Jack Dwan were the lock pairing for Blackrock in their SCT win last year which gives them a chance of renewing their partnership for Ireland.
Connacht's Cian Romaine has an outstanding workrate. His motor and the number of tackles he gets through in a game is outstanding, and it sometimes seems like he's in multiple places at once such is his effort.
Both Thompson and Romaine have experience for their provinces second string that will help their cause for a starting spot.
Josh Murphy and Stephen McVeigh are two very different options for Ireland at blindside. McVeigh's best attribute his ball carrying, while Murphy's defensive work is a huge asset to any team. Murphy can play in the second row aswell.
McVeigh is a former Clongowes No.8 who moved to the Connacht academy, while Josh Murphy has starred for UCD in the UBL since graduating from St. Michael's and was in the JWC squad last year.
Ross Todd and Ben Kilkenny from Ulster and Munster were both unlucky to miss out, but it's hard to argue with the selections made ahead of them.
Connacht's Rory Moloney is another highly rated prospect in their academy. Moloney was one of two backrow stars for Roscrea in their impressive SCT run two years ago along with last year's star Sean O'Brien. Moloney captained Ireland U19 against Australia in that friendly in December 2013 when Nick McCarthy was unavailable.
Conor Oliver is another from that famed Blackrock class and is one of the most natural openside flankers Ireland have produced in a long time. He has been outstanding for St. Mary's in the AIL, and will push Moloney hard for a starting spot. It's not hard to see either player succeed in the professional ranks.
Lorcan Dow is another Ulster academy representative in the squad, and the only one that has previous U20 experience. Dow was the sole Ulster forward in the JWC squad last year after injuries to both Dan Leavy and Sean O'Brien and he made the most of his opportunity with some very good displays. Dow is a large unit, and will be hard to stop when he carries the ball.
Backing him up will be another highly rated former Rock player Nick Timoney. Timoney has been one to watch for a while now and when he's on form he's nearly unstoppable from the back of the scrum. Can play anywhere across the backrow comfortably and will be fancied to get a coveted Leinster academy place next year. The talent is certainly there, even though there are whispers about a tendency to disappear from games. Timoney also featured in Rugby World's "School's Team Of The Year".
Both Jack Cullen and captain Nick McCarthy were in last year's 6 Nations squad. They both make the squad ahead of Ulster's highly rated academy scrum half Connor Young, Leinster's U20 captain Charlie Rock and Connacht's Conor Lowndes.
Nick McCarthy has been the halfback partner to Ross Byrne since the pair were 13 in St. Michael's College. But Cullen and McCarthy give swift service to their outhalves, while McCarthy is a bit more physical than the diminutive Cullen.
Ross Byrne was one of the standouts for the Ireland team last year. His style of play is very similar to Johnny Sexton. Byrne's game management is outstanding, he takes the ball on the gain line and constantly puts questions in the defenses mind. His vision is superb and finds space with passing or kicks extremely well. He isn't the quickest player, but his intelligence means he stands out at this level and will have a big future in the game.
Joey Carberry was Byrne's stand-in in the interprovincial championship before Christmas. With the JWC players rested, Carberry stepped up and nearly lead Leinster to the title, only to fall to Ulster. His performances were deemed good enough to get him selected over Ulster's Sean O'Hagan, and Munster's Tomas Quinlan or Gearoid Lyons.
Ireland have a lot of very good options in the centre positions. Last year's IRB JWC player of the year nominee Gary Ringrose returns for another year, and can play either at inside centre or outside centre.
He was known for his exceptional goalkicking at schools level, but Byrne has taken over that facet of play at U20s. Ringrose's pace and skill will be complimented by either Ulster's U19 centre Sam Arnold, Leinster's Harrison Brewer or Fergal Cleary.
Brewer, son of former pro Mike, and Arnold are two huge battering rams that also possess a deceptive amount of skill and passing for such large specimens. While Cleary offers a second five-eighth option after moving from outhalf to the centres from his earlier days.
Like Timoney, Arnold was also featured in Rugby World's "School's Team Of The Year".
Ulster's Jacob Stockdale could also feature as a centre, but is likely to find himself on the wing. Such is Ireland's talent at their disposal, Munster's U19 centre Paul Kieran and Ulster's Conor McKee were deemed surplus to requirements, but could have been key players were they in any other team that Ireland have had at this level.
Ireland are blessed to have five outstanding talents capable of playing international rugby for Ireland in the future in this U20 class. Leinster's Billy Dardis has long been heralded as the next big thing, so much so that Tony Ward was calling for him to be included in the full Ireland set up 14 months ago.
Injuries robbed Dardis of a good 2014, but the calibre of players at the other provinces is outstanding. An example of Dardis's pace is shown in the video below:
Ciaran Gaffney is one of the best Connacht prospects in years that was moved to the wing to huge success in last year's JWC. Gaffney is versatile having played at 10 in his youth, pacey, extremely intelligent and glides across the pitch poetically. In a similar vein, Stephen Fitzgerald was the name on everyone's lips from the Munster Senior Cup last year, and featured for the full Munster team in their pre season friendlies as an 18-year-old. He is the next extremely talented Munster back after JJ Hanrahan and Simon Zebo.
Not to be outdone, the versatile Jacob Stockdale and Jack Owens are both outstanding players. Both can play across the back three and at outside centre to devastating effect. Stockdale in particular scores tries for fun at underage international level. The U19 prospect will almost certainly be in the starting team, but the question will be where as opposed to if.
The final member of the squad is the 2nd year academy wing Greg O'Shea. O'Shea is a former 400m runner and is blessed with exceptional pace. He causes serious problems for defenses when he drifts off his wing and adds to the already packed back 3 options in the squad.
It's no surprise than that talented U19 fullback/centre Jack Power isn't in the squad, but he's another to watch for next year.
Photo Credits Ramsey Cardy, Stephen McCarthy, Matt Browne, Oliver McVeigh, David Maher/ Sportsfile