Match Reaction: South Africa U20s 19 – 23 Ireland U20s

The Irish U20s celebrate a cracking opening day win over hosts South Africa in the Junior World Championships. They led 13-3 at halftime and withheld a ferocious early second half onslaught to calmly see out the game. 

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.

Hanrahan had a couple of stray kicks early in the game, but once he was in it, he took over. Conversions from either touchline, long kicks that turned the Springbok pack towards their own goal-line, midfield breaks, good decisions when he had the ball … it was an exceptional performance from the Kerry man. He wouldn’t have started at No10 were Paddy Jackson available, and Ireland wouldn’t have won the game. 

The Natural 

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.

Backline Basics

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.

Chris Farrell is an enormous unit for a centre at over 194cm [6’5″], and while he might take a little more time to grow into his frame, he showed that he’s got a bit of football to go with the height – a second half grubber that sliced through the South African defense for a significant territorial gain was a real surprise, and while his passing wasn’t immaculate, it wasn’t all that bad either. With another year at this level next season, he’ll be a player on whom to keep a close eye.

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 played a hell of a game … and then talked a good game too! His post-match interview was composed, informative and gracious, which is a real rarity for lads his age. Just like Hanrahan wouldn’t have worn the No10 jersey if Jackson hadn’t been present, Scannell wouldn’t have been captain – but he looked and sounded as if he had been leading this team all year.

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.

12 thoughts on “Match Reaction: South Africa U20s 19 – 23 Ireland U20s

  1. Mole, you’ve nailed it again. Excellent report of a quality that is sadly lacking in the national media for a result which our senior team would give their eye-teeth for.

    Rumours of criticism of Ruddock appear well wide of the mark on the basis of this performance. Even former Springbok & ex-Sky TV rugby pundit, Bob Skinstead acknowledged that Ireland were tactically superior to the Babyboks on the day. Let’s hope that they also have a plan for the Red Rose on Friday because this performance showed that they have the skills and appetite to go a long way. The English looked slightly arrogant in possession against the Italians and I hope that they persist in running ball from their back three – even when they have no support. I reckon if they try that a couple of times against Coughlan-Murray and Daly, Farrell and Horan and our back-row could pick up some turnover ball to very good result.

    Keep up the good work

  2. jeez there was some big boys in that irish pack. if your man furlong was taking a Super 15 prop to school on nearly every scrum, he has to be fast tracked to HEC level and see if he can do it week in and week out and then if he can, get him on 6N squad…oh yeah but Kidney is the coach so that won’t happen

    • Kidney doesn’t pick the provincial teams. How can he pluck a guy from the 20s who isn’t getting game time for his province? Maybe the provincial coaches should be watching these guys because Kidney, Kiss and Smal already are.

  3. Those pack weight figures are amazing, cheers mole. Thought Farrell was very, very unfortunate with ball in hand. One of those days when nothing much would come off…..trying a sneaky pass when they had advantage only for ref to call advantage over (it seemed he called it after the pass) and bring it back. That is just brutal luck. He was very prominent in defence though and at a year young, very good.

    Thanks to a previous post of yours we know horan can carry a bit, but you are right about his breakdown work. He made an absolute critical turnover in 2nd half. Saffers tails were up after a try and they had broken out….it looked like they were gonna over-run Ireland. It was beautifully executed and gutsy. I think the turnover led to the drop goal (not sure). It’ll go down as a single stat, but meant an awful lot to that game. Back row helped big time, chopped trees for the centres all day. Very wales-esque tackling. Henderson and furlong were about as good as anyone could ask. Hell of a display.

  4. Good summation. I am not so optimistic about Farrell. He looks to be little more than a big lump. His posture going into contact is all wrong and his passing is laborious and a bit sloppy. Though I suppose all the losses due to the greater physicality of opponents has had an effect on selection.

    Ireland missed having Hanrahan in the centres, but he can’t play everywhere.

    If Furlong can beast the Stormers loosehead, then he’s HEC class already. It’s a pity he’s just the wrong side of the border.

    Henderson was the best player on the park. He’s some prospect.

    However, the centre play was lateral, the wingers are no more than hard-working and most of Ireland’s points came from forced or unforced South African errors. Ireland look well-equipped to play 10-man rugby, but not so good at anything more ambitious. There’s lots of improvement required if they’re going to beat England.

    P.S. As I recall, Gilroy pipped Macken last year in the Hollywood stakes, but it was close.

  5. This year’s pack(ish) with last year’s backline(ish), a good formula for Irish rugby.

    We played a smart game and clearly there’s been a lot of work in a fair few areas. SA would have torn us apart if we’d let the game open up but it was still a little disappointing that we weren’t able to counterattack effectively off turnover ball. The realignment structure really wasn’t there to test their defence. At the same time, they missed opportunities against us where they kicked with overlaps. Pace of the game.

  6. Seems to me you’re being a little harsh on last year’s Irish U20 backline; they’d have killed for a pack as good as this. That was a forward’s victory pure and simple with the backs’ contribution being some excellent kicking and auxiliary flanker work. Personally I’d question why the backs didn’t do more – there was some good ball won, but very little cohesion or go-forwards from the backline, with the exception of some individual breaks from Hanrahan. I think more will be required to beat England and put the necessary big score on Italy. And you’re being very harsh and somewhat ungracious to harp on about Paddy Jackson, who has after all captained a similarly difficult ask in beating France U20s in France.

    Anyway, am I the only person who’d like to see Henderson and Furlong play some Wolfhounds in the Autumn?

  7. Re: Furlong, in the second half he then packed down opposite Oliver kebbler. 128kgs, was playing in France d2 last year with stade montois, on their home patch and it looked to me like kibbler scrummed illegally twice (once losing bind, once going sideways). I wouldn’t claim furlong beasted them, but he wasn’t bettered, that’s for damn sure.

    Fair point about realignment ronk, the wasteful kicking of south africa and about pace of game as a reason to cut some slack. Don’t want to over-hype kids, but performance justifies a bit if credit, well done to all involved.

  8. Fulong must have amazing natural power, he’s not 20 until November so isnt far off being eligible next year. I know he came through the youths system in New Ross but does anyone know whether he’s from farming stock, has that look about him. He’s played very little rugby this year and was out on his feet at the end but still managed to lock the last few scrums.

    I dont think this is a particularly vintage crop of players talent wise, what it is though is a very solid, well drilled side with few weaknessed and a few outstanding prospects in key positions. Furlongs the best TH we’ve seen at this level since???, Hendersons an ultra rare talent with a seemingly complete game for lock. Gilsenan looks a prototype down and dirty openside who relishes a scrap, after 10 mins his jersey was nearly black. Hanrahan gave a masterful performance at 10 yesterday..

    • Tadhg is a Son Of The Soil, yeah.

      Tarf guys propping both sides of the Senior and u20 scrums alike. True, Old Ross is a paper-only import, but I’m pretty happy about that stat.

  9. Scanell was effectively a leader for the team in Wycombe when the going got tough. Every time play slowed or the team could group up it was Scannell, not Jackson, who was talking to the team. It wasn’t a surprise at all when he was asked to replace Jackson and to be honest it was probably a blessing in disguise. It’s very hard to make the right call on things like captaincy in a underage rep side and Jackson leaving halfway through the season allowed Ruddock to reassess and promote the guy who had proven himself in place of a guy chosen based on experience and familiarity.

    Perhaps Niall may not be the most talented hooker in the competition, but his value to our pack on Monday can’t be understated. And certainly we couldn’t possibly have fronted up at scrum time if he wasn’t contributing in there. Its big games from those lesser hyped players that will be the key to success for this group.

  10. Another great blog, looking forward to your views on yesterdays match. I thought myself the English loose head blatantly came out and bored in before the put in for the penalty try, and the yellow card was an unusual, if technically correct double sanction. I thought it a very creditable performance anyway. Hope the seniors do as well in half an hour!

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