Ireland U20’s finished the tournament in 8th place after going into the tournament with realistic expectations of a top 6 finish. It was a disappointing end to the tournament but overall I would regard this tournament as a success for the Ireland team who have gained invaluable experience in the high pressure and big hitting world of international rugby.
The key concern before the tournament was how the scrum was going to cope with the English and South African packs, so the scrum has to be the real bonus for Ireland with Furlong, Annett and Tracy superb throughout, even if they were out on their feet by the end of the tournament. Excellent technique displayed throughout by the young front row.
The backs looked useful when they got the ball on the front foot with Andrew Conway achieving a remarkable 10 tries over the two tournaments he’s appeared in. He is now top of the all time try scorers for this competition alongside New Zealand’s Zac Guildford but if you consider that Ireland have only won 30% of their games in Conway’s two tournaments and New Zealand have won 100% then Conway’s feat appears even more remarkable.
So, where did it go wrong for Ireland?
First up they were unlucky with the draw – placed with two such physical opponents in South Africa and England and playing them back to back in the first two games took a lot out of the team and with a kinder pool they could have gone further.
They did have their chances to upset the odds against both England and South Africa, probably the 2nd and 3rd best teams in the competition. The Irish lads fancied their chances and they went for it in both games, much to their detriment in the closing fixtures, but at the end of they day they slipped off too many first up tackles and forced too many passes under pressure and these were the main differences between Ireland and their opponents in the higher ranks.
Initial issues with the lineout also cost Ireland in those crucial fixtures though it was corrected as the tournament went on. On top of this, Ireland struggled with speed of thought and reaction in open play with the Irish lads just that millisecond behind the top sides.
While Ireland can work on scrums and lineouts on the training paddock, by the end of they tournament they were forces to be reckoned with in both, what they can’t do is recreate the intensity of these games on a regular basis for the youngsters.
The games against England and South Africa were as full blooded and intense as any Heineken Cup encounter and were played at a fantastic pace. This isn’t just a step up from schools rugby, it’s a whole new world, and the Irish lads can only benefit from being exposed to competitions like this. They now know what they have to do to compete and thankfully they are not that far off.
The invaluable benefit of this tournament makes it all the stranger to me that the IRFU are considering withdrawing Ireland from next years tournament in South Africa. I tried to follow up on this when I was over in Italy but found everyone very guarded on the subject.
The PR being put out points to player welfare being the key concern and there can be no doubt that this is a gruelling tournament with five games in 16 days but there are enough experienced staff to look after the players. At the end of the day the benefits from the standard of rugby they are exposed to far outweighs the concerns.
It appears to be the Provinces that are pushing for the withdrawal of the team with player availability at the start of the season put forward as the justification. Short sighted in my opinion as this is a big step up from a couple of Rabodirect, B & I Cup or U20 Interpro games that the bulk of the players would be involved in.
This is a tournament in a lifetime for a lot of these youngsters, future generations shouldn’t be denied the experience.