Ireland U20s celebrate 2023 Grand Slam
While Irish fan still come to terms with their devastating exit from the Rugby World Cup, the situation developing at U20 level at home offers much food for comfort.

The last couple of years have seen some excellent individuals emerge from the age group, but seeing how this group responds in such a transitional year will be fascinating - and could well determine Ireland's success for the following few years. Richard Murphy and his coaching team have produced the goods before; they can do it again. Having a side as good as last year’s (and the previous year's) wasn’t just luck: great players come about because of great coaching and having tasted victory in back-to-back Grand Slams and making the World Championship Final last summer will have created a huge amount of confidence in the coaching group as a whole.

The way they played rugby, the shape of their attack and the emphasis placed on slick hands and pace around the outside was wonderful to watch, and you would expect a huge amount of that framework to already be in place. The performances from the likes of Sam Prendergast, Henry Mcerlean, Ruadhan Quinn, Hugh Cooney and Gus McCarthy will give Murphy belief that things are possible. Winning Grand Slams drives up standards and this group of players will know how much is expected of them. The obvious flip side is that experience does help and there are few players in this year's squad who were involved in last year’s heroics. And while, of course, experience is something you very rarely have at age grade level, Ireland could have overdone last year’s squad at the expense of this year. Much will be expected of the five or six players who already have the T-shirt but a lot of emphasis from this squad will come from players stepping on to the stage for the first time. How they adjust, how they take to this level of rugby will be incredibly important to how Ireland perform as a whole.  

What also might be of concern is some of the defensive displays at U19 level last year. France roundly despatched them with half a century of points and only a last minute conversion in one of their two games against Japan spared Ireland’s blushes in a high scoring affair. Offensively, the U19s seem gifted and more than happy to run the ball and give things a go. Unfortunately, it did seem at times as though other teams could physically dominate them and defensively, they appeared perilously porous when opposition played with quick ball. This will be an area to address for all concerned and as France are Ireland’s first game in this year’s Six Nations tournament, we aren’t going to have to wait long to see if the holes have been plugged.  It is a cohort with names you’ll recognise. Brothers Danny and Jacob Sheahan played a part in last year’s squad and it will be intriguing to see if they share the big-game DNA of uncle Frankie, the Munster legend. And talking of Limerick family connections, Evan O’Connell will be following in illustrious footsteps as the rest of Ireland bask in uncle Paulie’s limelight.

There are also expectations on fellow Munsterman Brian Gleeson. Rockwell College transformed this young man into a player with huge potential after he starred as a youngster at hurling. Hailing from Loughmore, where GAA is something of an expectation rather than a choice, Gleeson’s explosive power and dominant size is the sort of thing to build a side around. If Richard Murphy’s side can get the ball in Gleeson’s hands and utilise his threat then a huge amount will be created in his wake. The pack as a whole is strong with most of the small amount of returning talent (Both Sheahans/ Joe Hopes/ Ewan O’Connell/ Brian Gleeson) being forwards. You would guess that Ireland will look to this pack to try and assert dominance on every side they play.  A standout back would have to be Gonzaga’s own Hugo McLaughlin. A hero of the school’s legendary victory over Blackrock last year, the Leinster Academy fullback has a lovely step and appreciation of space, while also looking defensively sound and happy under the high ball. The back three as a whole looks dangerous and in the centre there is a bit of experience and heft, which could threaten. The obvious question in the side is at half back and, in particular, who fills the void left by Sam Prendegast. 

There appears to be three main contenders at fly half and one of those, Bantry’s Dylan Hicks, is fresh out of school. The battle would seem to be Jack Murphy and Sean Naughton. Both Leinstermen, the former is son of head coach Richard and brother of Ben, a former Ireland U20 scrum half, who is now in situ in Leinster’s Academy. While neither could yet be described as balanced and intuitive as Prendegast, both have the ability to steer the ship, kick crucial goals and put Ireland on the front foot. It is possible to describe Murphy as ‘having the shirt’ as he started the U19 games last year. But Naughton is a fine competitor and you would have to hope that the two of them push each other to greater heights in search of the starting berth.  There is no doubt that this will be a fascinating year for Ireland U20s. Despite their Rugby World Cup travails, Irish rugby is rightly seen as a leading light in the game, and this generation will have to deal with both the gift and the weight of the promise they've shown.