Noel McNamara has challenged his Ireland Under-20 squad to play the game on their own terms when they host England at Irish Independent Park on Friday night (kick-off 7.15pm).
Severely hampered by injuries at times, 2018 was a challenge first year at the helm for young head coach McNamara, but with five players returning from last season and a relatively clean bill of health, the Ireland Under-20s are shaping up well for their first competitive game at their new Cork home.
“It’s a huge challenge obviously. One of the best teams traditionally in the world at U-20 level and obviously they have a lot of players with a lot of experience, both at senior English level in the case of Marcus Smith, Cameron Redpath and Ted Hill. But also guys with a lot of Premiership experience,” said McNamara, speaking ahead of the eagerly-awaited first round clash.
“We’d certainly feel that we would have a bit of cohesion. I think for us it’s about utilising the fact that we’re at home with a home crowd. Looking to start fast and putting them under pressure. Trying to take them to a place where they’re uncomfortable. Not playing the game on their terms.
“I think any English team that you get into an arm wrestle with and it’s set-piece dominated, it’s not really a place you want to be. For us, I’m excited about looking at who we have in our team. The focus really is on us. We’ve had a look at some of their trends from previous teams, but really the focus is on ourselves and looking to deliver the best possible product that we can.”
As one of the quintet with previous experience at this age-grade, Lansdowne and Leinster Academy out-half Harry Byrne is expected to take on greater responsibility in the coming weeks. A younger brother of Leinster and Ireland out-half Ross Byrne, he accumulated 10 consecutive caps for the Ireland U-20s in 2018.
Despite acknowledging that the 19-year-old Dubliner is still in the early stages of his development, McNamara believes that Byrne has the attributes to push forward into Leo Cullen’s senior set-up at Leinster in the coming seasons.
“Harry’s still obviously learning, there are areas where he himself would be quick to admit that he needs to develop. He certainly was a very good player for us last year. We’ll be hoping that he will have benefited from those experiences and I suppose learnt to manage the games and learning the winning process. Which is ultimately what we’re about,” he explained.
“He has undergone that and he has an opportunity now to help some other people through it and to grow himself as well. It’s a great opportunity for him, coming into his second Six Nations. He has 10 Ireland U-20s caps, he has an opportunity to put a few more to that. Looking forward to seeing what he can deliver and hopefully this time next year he’ll be knocking on the door for Leinster.”
In addition to steering the Ireland U-20s’ ship, McNamara is also employed by Leinster Rugby as an Elite Development Officer. Before that, he guided Clongowes Wood College to back-to-back Leinster Schools Senior Cup successes in 2010 and 2011. Even though Donnybrook and the RDS have been familiar hunting grounds for him in recent years, McNamara is actually a native of County Clare.
This makes the Ireland U-20s’ encounters with England and defending champions France in Cork particularly special and he is fully behind the move down south, adding: “I think it’s a great idea, to be honest. I think it’s an opportunity to go to a very passionate county. Very passionate about their sport, very knowledgeable about their sport. We’re delighted to be bringing two international games down to Cork.
“For us, it’s really about trying to get the Cork people behind us. Get the crowds going to the games. We’d love nothing more than to fill out Independent Park and get out at the front of that wave. That’s certainly what the boys are excited about, that’s what we’re all excited about really.
“It’s a great little stadium as well. Great atmosphere down there. I’ve been at games down there where there have been good crowds. It’s something to really look forward to.”
Alongside expected absentees Azur Allison, Stewart Moore and Angus Kernohan, McNamara revealed that he will also be without Dublin University and Leinster Academy lock Ryan Baird for the opening round of the U-20 Six Nations. Nonetheless, there is still a strong hand to pick from within the squad, who have been soaking up the international environment over the past week.
“From a team perspective, building any team, that connection is really important. That’s probably one of the things last week we got an opportunity to work on. One of the great things about the Six Nations is that the boys get time living together. Monday-Tuesday of a Test week, Thursday-Friday of a Test week as well. It’s a lot of time.
“They get to know each other pretty intimately. Their faults as well as their positives. That’s really where you get into it and you really learn about people when they’re under pressure. When you’re reviewing the last game, looking forward to the next game, you’re getting to grips with each other as well as everything else,” he concluded.