Sandwiched between a British & Irish Lions tour, summer international friendlies and news of new global trial laws by World rugby, the 2021 Six Nations U20s tournament might have gone unnoticed by the rugby public.
The annual event was moved from the wet and cold of February and March to the hazy, sunny days in June and July, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The tournament provides a window of opportunity for the next generation of rugby stars to introduce themselves to the public. The stars of the future have a stage to perform and to get their names into the minds of the head coaches around Europe.
The tournament also gives home unions a chance to assess and test their talent development pathways with other unions, and a chance to stock-take on the talent pool coming through.
This year’s tournament was a huge triumph for the organisers with each round played over the course of one day at the same Cardiff venue. England was crowned champions following their Grand Slam with five bonus point victories.
Plenty of positives for Ireland U20s
With this tournament being a huge success for the Ireland U20s over the last three years, this year’s tournament produced wins over Scotland, Wales & Italy and narrow losses to England and France. While the players and coaches will be disappointed with their third place finish, this was ultimately a successful campaign for the Irish team, who are sponsored by PwC.
Firstly it was a huge operation to keep 30 players and 10 staff in a bubble in Cardiff for six weeks and credit must go to the management and players in what would have been a tricky environment.
This tournament to the IRFU is about high-performance player development, what players are in the system, what potential do they have and what’s needed to bring these players to the next level. And there is certainly a lot for the IRFU and the Irish provinces to get excited about.
Ireland U20s captain and Munster academy player Alex Kendellen was the standout player. He visibly grew as the competition went on and benefited from having the likes of former Ireland and Munster No.8 Denis Leamy as one of the assistant coaches. His action-packed performances were wonderful to watch, with him topping the tournament statistics for Ball Carrying and Tackling.
— Munster Rugby (@Munsterrugby) July 19, 2021
Munster has a star on their hands with Kendellen and some clever management of game time and further performance development will see him a regular in red over the coming seasons and hopefully further tournaments in the green jersey of Ireland.
Ulster scrum-half Nathan Doak is another player that should feature in the senior jerseys of Ulster and Ireland in the coming years. This goal-kicking scrum-half is a real game tactician player, the type of scrum-half that the French produce regularly. Doak should see lots of game time in the coming season and looks to be the heir apparent to John Cooney in Ulster.
Like Kendellen, patience will be needed with Doak's development and an environment that he can learn from Cooney and gain valuable minutes on the pitch will be key to his development.
Leinster’s Jamie Osborne, who has already played six times for the senior squad in the Pro14, was another who enhanced their reputation over the course of the tournament. With his long and accurate left boot and his outstanding aerial skill, Osborne is uniquely different to other fullbacks in Irish rugby as he is very comfortable playing as a broken field runner, a strike player and a second playmaker with a kicking game to match.
His first task will be to get himself ready to battle for game-time with the likes of Hugo Keenan, Jordan Lamour and Jimmy O’Brien. With the rotation policy within Leinster, Leo Cullen will certainly allow Osborne to shine and do not be surprised if he grabs the opportunity and become a regular for Leinster and Ireland in the next few years.
Other players to watch out for in the next couple of years will be centre Cathal Forde (Connacht), back row Alex Soroka (Leinster) and Oisin McCormack (Connacht) and prop Jack Boyle (Leinster) who is also underage for next year’s tournament.
As these talented players enjoy their few weeks' rest, thoughts will move to the future. Some will return to their provinces for pre-season, new academy members will enter the world of professional rugby for the first time. A chance to rub shoulders with their heroes and see can they make the jump to the next level.
The Irish provinces, like they have done for the past 20 years, will nurture the latest talent and hopefully give them the opportunities to perform at the next level. For others, it will be the disappointment at not achieving their goal with their home province, but they may find a new home in another province or overseas.
Talent Identification is a non-linear path for the majority and some will take different routes to the top, but for the summer of 2021, they can all call themselves Irish international rugby players, and they can all be proud of that fact.