A win against a Bok U20 team on home soil is an enormous result – normally at this age-group, the physical advantage of the South Africans over their Irish counterparts is even more pronounced than at test level, but a hard-nosed Irish pack got down and dirty and showed outstanding toughness, effort and discipline to take the game away from the Boks.
This was a team that got bullied by the English U20s in the last game of the Six Nations, and yet they came up against a similarly strong pack playing in front of their own crowd yesterday evening and found a way to win.
Competition at the breakdown and defense were all exactly at the pitch they needed to be, and the set pieces more than broke even. The contest was redolent of the Irish performance against Australia in RWC11 in many ways: a rock solid scrummage, a lineout capable of pressurizing the opposition throw, ferocious, disciplined work at the breakdown from every player and an accurate, committed defensive effort.
After a rocky start with a line kick and a restart going straight into touch, JJ Hanrahan quickly settled into the game and put in a masterful performance in the No10 jersey. He went 4/4 from the ground, but goal-kicking was only half the story. The threat he offered as a runner at outhalf, his tactical kicking game, his passing and most importantly his decision-making were all first rate. He has the rare ability to mix attacking élan with cold-headed judgment, and presents all the advantages of playing a guy with a centre’s running game at outhalf without compromising the tactical approach of the team – a rare talent.
While Ireland don’t have the attacking options in the outside backs that they boasted last year – Andrew Conway [the joint top try-scorer in the tournament’s short history], Craig Gilroy, Tiernan O’Halloran and Brendan Macken – this year’s group look a more disciplined, mature and less gaff-prone bunch.
While it’d be churlish to criticise Conway’s efforts in last year’s tournament – five tries in five games is a phenomenal return, and his play in attack was occasionally breathtaking – Gilroy, O’Halloran and particularly Macken were all guilty of thinking that they could do the same thing that they’d been doing at school and get away with it at a higher level. They rarely combined effectively in attack, and the volume of points they allowed [33 against England, 46 against South Africa the first time around and 57 the second time around, and a very disappointing 38 against Wales in their final match] speaks for itself.While the current crop may not have the same natural talent as those that preceded them, centres Foster Horan and Chris Farrell, wings Barry Daly and Sam Coghlan-Murray and fullback Peter Nelson worked cohesively in attack and tirelessly in defense. When Ireland had the ball, most of the magic came from Hanrahan, but an awful lot of grunt-work in securing the pill at the breakdown was done by the centres, and both wingers chased kicks at full pelt to put the South African back three under more pressure than they were used to. Nelson regained composure after a horrendous early slice out on the full to put in a composed performance in the No15 jersey. Connacht Academy scrum-half Keiron Marmion fully justified his place ahead of highly-rated Leinster tyro Luke McGrath with a barking performance at the base of the ruck, and his defensive work was brave and well-executed.
Up Front With The Fatties
The effect of Tadhg Furlong’s performance at tighthead can’t be overstated. You don’t realise how important a strong scrummage is until you don’t have one: all of a sudden, opposition knock-ons can be a gateway to penalties against you. Furlong locked the scrum with authority throughout the first half, getting the upper hand on his highly-rated opposite number, Steven Kitshoff. Kitshoff has started all bar one of the Stormers Super 15 games this season – and he only missed the last one because he was pulled for Baby Bok duty.
The New Ross man’s efforts were all the more impressive when you take into account that Kitshoff’s Stormers aren’t an underweight franchise making up the numbers in that competition: they’re leaders of the South African franchise and second on the combined log standings, behind the Chiefs. Kitshoff is a highly-rated prospect, so much so that new Boks coach Heyneke Meyer was considering him for selection for his first Springboks squad, saying:
“We also rate a number of great players in the South African Under-20 squad, but they were not considered at this stage due to the fact that they are playing in a very important Junior World Championship.”
Niall Scannell took over captaincy at a relatively late stage in tournament preparations when Paddy Jackson was taken out of the squad by his province, but he looked a more natural leader than the Ulster outhalf ever did during the U20 Six Nations. Throughout the first half he expended huge amounts of energy disrupting South African rucks, and his abrasiveness and physicality inspired the rest of the Irish pack. His captaincy credentials were bolstered by his excellent discipline: he was in constant communication with the referee during play and stoppages, and despite playing at the edge of the laws around the breakdown, he was canny enough to know when to call a halt before the whistle sounded.
This was a big, physical Irish pack. They’re a long way ahead of most of their predecessors at these championships, which would indicate that the provincial academies are continually improving in terms of strength and conditioning. In fact, if you compare them to the starting Irish test pack, there were four players in the U20s who were heavier than their corresponding senior equivalent:
- Des Merry – 112kg / Cian Healy – 110kg
- Niall Scannell – 106kg / Rory Best – 110kg
- Tadhg Furlong – 118kg / Mike Ross – 116kg
- Iain Henderson – 116kg / Donncha O’Callaghan – 112kg
- Tadhg Beirne – 103kg / Paul O’Connell – 110kg
- Jordan Coghlan – 108kg / Stephen Ferris – 112kg
- Conor Gilsenan – 98kg / Sean O’Brien – 108kg
- Jack Conan – 110kg / Jamie Heaslip – 109kg
Total Weight 871kg/ Total Weight 887kg
The relatively lightweight players [Beirne and Gilsenan] played with huge energy and a controlled, well-drilled level of aggression. Gilsenan’s tackle count must have been in the high teens, and his blockdown of the South African outhalf’s kick that led to fellow backrower Jordan Coghlan’s try was classic openside play.
A special word of praise should go to second row Iain Henderson, who capped off a first-rate performance with his second half try. So often you’ll see enormous Springbok locks at this level who look as though they’re a different species from their Irish opposite numbers, but while Henderson doesn’t quite have the guns or the tans of the men he was up against, he’s every bit their physical equal. Not only was he able to impose himself on the South African pack at lineout time, but he was willing to take it to them in the loose from kick-off to full-time whistle. While you couldn’t truthfully say that the Irish pack dominated the Springbok eight, it was a neck-and-neck battle in which the superior workrate and football of the northern hemisphere side edged it.