The Ireland U20s quest for a Grand Slam takes Noel McNamara's outfit to Colwyn Bay this Friday. Last week, Ireland secured the Six Nations with a win over France. It is a stunning achievement, all the more so given who delivered it and where it began.
It all kicked off in Cork. Ireland overcame a talented English side on the opening night of February at their new home, Irish Independent Park. What was more remarkable was the outstanding contribution from West Cork players. A region known for its Gaelic football churning out a host of rugby prospects.
John Hodnett and Josh Wycherley have both had immense moments on the way to Friday's decider. Their initial etchings are part of a far greater mark that West Cork is beginning to leave on Irish rugby. What began with Darren Sweetnam has extended down and produced Fineen Wycherley, older brother of Josh, Gavin and Liam Coombes, James French, David McCarthy, with more to come.
Watching on proudly that cold, opening night was Bantry Bay RFC's Director of Rugby, Damien Hicks. Bantry produced both Wycherley brothers. Speaking with a palpable delight, he is quick to explain this is the fruition of diligent developments.
Hicks is also working with Munster rugby, promoting the game in unplowed territories.
"At the moment, I’m attending a lot of the schools around here to promote rugby which is obviously giving them more access to the game. This is for kids who don’t attend a club as well.
"There’s no doubt that is for the future, we’ll continue that and try to get to more schools. I cover a lot of national schools and we go to a lot of secondary schools as well. We do extra workshops on top of that with coaches."
The main aim is to get as many people as possible trying the game. In the secondary school here, we’ve teams in first year, second year and third year. They’re not all 15-a-side games, some are 10-a-aside or 11-a-side. It just gives kids the chance to play. Some come to the club and some don’t but they all get to play.
In the national school, we do non-contact. It's all touch rugby and tag rugby. Just give them a chance to experience it. At the same time, it’s a skill set, even if it is just catch and pass. Basic skills. In fairness, we really pushed that with the national schools.
The U20s opening night in Irish Independent Park was a monumental occasion for several reasons; It was the proclamation of a new home in Cork, with several players from new regions in Cork. Yet for Hicks that evening was bigger than many realise.
"We had U15 schools playing at half-time that night. There were four schools pulled out of a hat. I was the referee for one, just half-pitch games. They were not 'rugby playing' schools, just normal secondary schools who got a chance to play and then watch the Ireland U20s.
"For me, that was massive. One team was from Clonakilty, two west Cork schools. It showed the kids what they can do but also what can happen."
Former Munster and Irish player Donal Lenihan commenced his career in the heartland of one of those traditional powers, Cork Constitution. Speaking to Balls.ie, he stresses how these burgeoning rugby areas are the result of work done on the ground, crediting coaches for developing the two U20 stars.
I watched Bandon play Presentation Brothers Cork last Tuesday in the Senior Cup, they are rivalling the traditional schools. They were an A-level school first, then made a Senior Cup semi-final last year and this year again. They should have won it! John Hodnett and Wycherley have also been outstanding throughout the 20s. We’ve two or three from that area with us at Con as well. Two fabulous young props, all from Bantry.
Skibbereen, Bandon, Clonakilty all had rugby clubs for years but a lot of those guys now are coming through schools. The big thing was Regis Sonnes, the current Toulouse assistant coach. He was with Bandon for a few years and had most of the guys playing for Bandon Grammar back at U12s level. He is leading the revolution in Toulouse rugby now. I saw him in action with Bandon junior team playing Con one day. He clearly had a big influence on those kids.
As well as coaching, Lenihan explains that the province's recent success has inspired a new generation to embrace the sport and pursue accolades of their own: "Munster’s last 30 years has attracted a wider audience, certainly more than the amateur days. You’ve young kids growing up in West Cork, these lads watched the Munster of '06 and '08 and witnessed Heineken Cup finals."
It's a development that could prove fruitful for the province as well.
Munster have producing players from the same sources for the last forty years. This new part is huge. Absolutely massive. Munster will never match the production line Leinster have with the number of schools they have but this is something. I was director with Munster academy when it was set up first and one of our aims was always trying to break into non-traditional areas.
You were always looking to Kerry, West Cork. It has taken a while but rugby is now seeping into the non-traditional areas.
Ray Gadsden is a Community Rugby Officer in Kerry and West Cork and someone who has worked tirelessly alongside fellow coach Eugene McCarthy in the area.
Gadsden, whose role with Munster rugby recently changed, reveals that the process that has benefited the Ireland U20s and the province is not the sole intention but a by-product.
The end goal is the growth of the game. This approach makes sense. If a rising tide lifts all boat, the national and provincial side will benefit from an increasing standard.
I've worked there for the last ten years. It can be put it down to a couple of things. Firstly, there are really good volunteers in the clubs in West Cork. They were really receptive to us coming in and working with the coaches. So Munster rugby go in and work with mini coaches, youth coaches and then support any adult coaches that need that.
There has been a number of innovations over the last number of years. We had the emerging schools programme for kids who may not have tried the game before. We work with first years and U15s. It is an introduction to contact rugby. Some guys take to it naturally, others don't but it just gives a different sport to focus on.
Ultimately, a natural pathway now exists: "The coaches in the clubs have given them a love of the game and as a Munster rugby development department we've hopefully helped coaches improving their coaching, that expertise is passed onto the players. It's all part of a big wheel."
As Hicks explains, it is a wheel that continues to churn, with the same crop that will represent Ireland on Sunday at the heart of it.
Josh (Wycherley) is doing really well. They are a great family. I remember himself and Fineen played one night at the start of the season for Munster As, it was on in Cork. They came back to the family home in Cork afterwards that night after 12 o'clock. Then their mother contacted my wife to ask was there any training sessions the next day in Bantry.
The U10s were actually there training Saturday morning and the two brothers arrived down at ten o’clock in the morning to help train the lads. They didn't need to, they only got home late but they knew what it meant. That's what it's about.