The 2019 World Rugby Under-20 Championship kicks-off this Tuesday in Argentina and Ireland head into the tournament off the back of a Grand Slam in the Six Nations.
The boys in green should be full of confidence but a number of injuries to crucial players has dented their hopes of claiming a first-ever U-20s world title.
Still, fans can expect much more from Noel McNamara’s side this year than last year’s crop of youngsters, who narrowly avoided relegation, finishing in 11th place.
We’ll fill you in on Ireland’s chances as well as the teams they’ll have to beat to be crowned champions.
The 28-man squad was announced a few weeks ago and while there is still plenty of talent in the side, the headlines focused mainly on the absentees.
Scott Penney, the barnstorming 19-year-old 100kg flanker who has already made six appearances for Leinster’s senior team, was ruled out of the tournament with a shoulder injury.
Fly-half Harry Byrne, younger brother of Ross, was also ruled out along with David Hawkshaw, who captained the team in their first three Six Nations matches.
Ireland still have plenty of reason to be optimistic though with a number of star players still available to head coach Noel McNamara.
Sean French, who replaced Hawkshaw at inside-centre in the Six Nations, put in a few stellar performances for Ireland in their last two Six Nations games to help them to a Grand Slam. French has been tearing it up in the AIL since then and impressed on the wing for Cork Con in their win over Clontarf in the final.
Scrum-half and vice-captain Craig Casey is another one to watch and the Limerick man made headlines after Leinster were reportedly interested in poaching Casey from Munster. Both Leinster and Munster clearly hold Casey in high regard and he will be crucial to Ireland’s hopes.
Ireland will also be bringing this year’s Six Nations top try-scorer Dylan Tierney-Martin to the World Championship, which is especially impressive as he plays as a hooker. Ireland will hope for more tries from the Connacht man as they attempt to escape a tough pool.
There’s no easy introduction for Ireland as they take on England in the first pool game on Tuesday. While Ireland got the better of the English in the Six Nations they had to come from 11 points behind and they won’t want to give England an early advantage again.
They’ll be comforted by knowing that this English side doesn’t appear to have the same talent as they have had in previous years but it would be foolish to disregard the three-time world champions.
It doesn’t get any easier for Ireland after England as they take on Australia just four days later. This U-20s Australia side look like real contenders for the tournament after winning their first Oceania Championship title in early May, hammering New Zealand 24-0 in the final game of the tournament.
The Junior Wallabies will have played Italy in their first game and will likely be fresher coming into the game against Ireland.
Italy won’t rollover however, and actually did considerably better than Ireland in last year’s tournament, finishing eighth. Still, they should prove to be Ireland’s easiest opposition in the pool.
New Zealand will of course go into the tournament as strong contenders as they do every year. However, 2019 was the first time they failed to win the U20s Oceania Championship in its five-year history, so the six-time winners may not be as strong as they’ve been in previous years.
The reigning champions France will also be in the running but won’t be expected to retain their title after losing to both Ireland and England in this year’s Six Nations. However, they will fancy topping their pool with Wales, Argentina and Fiji.
South Africa could be well worth a punt as the 2012 champions have only failed to make the semi-finals once in the tournament’s 11-year-long history. They did lose to Argentina in a warm-up game however so this may not be the strongest Junior Springboks side we have seen.
Written by Eoin Harte
Everyone’s in the Team Of Us.
Vodafone. The Official Sponsor of the Irish Rugby Team.