While France lifted their first Grand Slam in 12 years in this year’s Six Nations, it was Ireland who lifted the trophy at U20s level. The Ireland U20s - who are sponsored by PwC - are the gift that keeps giving to Irish rugby. For the second time in three years (the 2020 Championship cancelled due to COVID-19 with Ireland having won three from three), Ireland are the kings of age grade rugby in Europe, having only lost 2 games in 4 seasons. This season, under new coach Richie Murphy, they produced away wins in France and England and entertained the crowds in Cork with 3 outstanding displays against Wales, Italy, and Scotland.
But what was it about this Irish team that the other teams in the Six Nations struggled with?
— Irish Rugby (@IrishRugby) March 20, 2022
Savage at the breakdown
Richie Murphy came into this coaching job after working as the kicking coach for Joe Schmidt at Leinster and Ireland. And how that apprenticeship wasn't a complete waste of time. Joe built the senior team's success on his attention to detail in the tackle and breakdown areas, and Murphy has done the same. The breakdown work on this squad was amazing, allowing the players to play at a blazing pace that the other teams couldn't match, culminating in an incredible 29 tries (the next best was England with 19). Murphy developed in these players a positive attitude towards attack and gave them the flexibility to explore the opportunities given by the opposition. Aitzol King's wonder try against England exemplifies this team's positive attitude in attack. It starts with an offload from Jude Postlethwaite, Patrick Campbell's quick feet and acceleration into space, Jack Boyle's strong ball carrying, captain Reuben Crothers' great carry and pass in the wide channel, and King's outstanding finish.
— Six Nations Under-20s (@SixNationsU20) March 12, 2022
This teams transition attack was a joy to watch, with this great counter attack try by Matthew Devine in the final Six Nations game, following a outstanding vision and pace from Chay Mullins, who was electric throughout the tournament.
— Six Nations Under-20s (@SixNationsU20) March 20, 2022
These players definitely put in a lot of effort during their lockdowns, as evidenced by their superior fitness levels in this year's championship. Ireland scored ten tries in the final 20 minutes of games, conceding only five in the second halves. During this year's campaign, Ireland used 31 players, and few of them appeared out of place when called upon to perform. Aitzol King's two tries off the bench versus England exemplified the influence of the bench players. The provincial fitness personnel and training regimens deserve credit for keeping these players in peak physical and mental shape.
Picking up the phone and calling Jimmy Duffy was one of Richie Murphy's best moves in this year's tournament. Duffy coached Connacht's forwards for several years, winning the Pro12 with them. His expertise and experience were evident throughout the team, which won an astonishing 95% of their own balls in the U20s Six Nations. Ireland scored 17 tries from lineouts, but their maul was the standout performance. It's an uncommon sight to watch an Irish team march opponents the size of France and England in front of their home crowd. The technically superior Irish forwards were outstanding throughout this tournament, with the likes of the experienced Jack Boyle, Mark Morrissey, Conor O’Tighearnaigh and captain Reuben Crothers to the fore. It also has to be acknowledged that James McCormick’s throwing at lineout time was simply world-class, and he is certainly one of the many players on this team who we’ll see in the pro game soon.
Over the last number of years, the Ireland U20s players have linked up with training sessions with the senior squad during the non-test match weeks. It is an incredible experience for these young players to square up to their more senior counterparts, and it is also a chance for both coaching staffs to get together to compare notes. Areas such as breakdown and Ireland’s famed three second ruck ball, 22m attack and attacking maul launch plays are all very similar. There was certainly some shared understanding around some of the attack plays, but this team showed very smart strategic knowledge around their first phase attack. Aitzol King’s try that gave Ireland a bonus point v England was one of the best first phase tries you’ll see anywhere in the world. Everything was executed flawlessly, from a 5-man lineout to a clever inside pass to King.
— Six Nations Under-20s (@SixNationsU20) March 12, 2022
It will be a well-earned rest for this all-Irish coaching team before they turn their attention to the next group of players and board the U20s bus once more. For the players, these young men will hopefully play for their club and perhaps even their province, but the majority will enter the very competitive world of Irish rugby academies. One of the four academy managers will call some of these players, ideally with good news and a three-year contract with their province. Because the majority of these players have yet to wear their province's senior shirt, it's crucial to recognise the All Ireland League's contribution to this achievement. The league has given these young players competitive playing time and opportunity, which has helped them prepare for this event.
While it was the Irish public's first glimpse of some of the tremendous talent playing outside the professional ranks, I don't think it will be the last.