The Ireland U20s opened their Junior World Championship campaign with an incredible 23-19 win over hosts South Africa yesterday. The ‘Wolfpuppies’ put in a phenomenal defensive effort, with both of their tries coming from blocked-down South African kicks. Irish captain Niall Scannell summed it up neatly for us in his post-match interview when he said that the Irish focus in the build-up had been on early, low tackles followed by other defenders getting in over the ball.
Ireland were excellent at the breakdown, and put that plan into perfect effect. The Baby Boks became extremely frustrated with the Irish side’s eagerness to compete at every ruck. The number of turnovers in Ireland’s favour at the breakdown was truly decisive. When the hosts did manage to get through a few phases, they scored their solitary try through Lions lock Paul Willemse. That period of pressure aside, Mike Ruddock’s Irish team managed to make the South Africans possession very scrappy.
There were some promising individual displays too for the Irish. JJ Hanrahan at outhalf maintained his cool throughout. His decision to pop over a drop-goal in the 56th minute to put Ireland 16-10 in front was particularly impressive. Similarly, his scything line-break in the first-half showed his awareness, as well a sharp turn of pace. The Kerryman will hope that New Zealand U20 and new Munster coach Rob Penney was watching the game, as his performance will have greatly impressed.
Tadhg Furlong at tighthead was immense in locking out the Irish scrum. Opposite him at loosehead for the Boks was Steven Kitshoff, already first-choice for the Stomers, who are 2nd in the overall Super Rugby table. But Furlong was the winner of their battle. Apart from one occasion late in the second-half, the Irish dealt capably with the South African scrum. Furlong played a vital role. As highlighted by the Demented Mole, the Wexford man is a serious prospect.
Iain Henderson burst onto the scene with this try against Munster last month. The Ulster man put in a superb shift yesterday evening from the second-row. He has played plenty of rugby at 6, and it’s easy to see why. He’s a real physical presence and has a massive engine. He never let up against the Baby Boks. Again, the Mole picked Henderson out as one to watch, and was not mistaken. There’s a real shade of Stephen Ferris in Henderson and we’ll certainly be seeing more of him next season for Ulster.
Picking out three individual players is probably not fair though, as this was a concentrated team effort from Ireland. Their willingness to throw their bodies into every collision was unwavering. Ruddock clearly had instilled the belief into his side that they could win this game. That was evident in the way Ireland came back from a shaky start, when it looked like the Boks might become dominant. We saw a few short passages of attacking cutting-edge from Ireland which bodes well, but this win was all about the physical side of the game.
Hopefully the senior Irish squad took in the game, because the effort from the U20s was inspirational. This must count as one of the best-ever wins for Ireland at any underage level. Beating South Africa anywhere at this level is special, but to do so in their own back yard adds another dimension. Ireland now turn their focus to the match against England on Friday. The English ran in 9 tries in a 64-5 win over Italy earlier today (video above).
The memory of losing the Six Nations Grand Slam decider to England back in March will still be fresh in the memory for Ruddock and his squad. That game swung in England’s favour off the back of Irish errors and a lack of physicality. They will have learned their lesson and now the confidence will be up. Best of luck lads, there’ll be plenty of us watching on!
What did you think of the Irish win over South Africa? Which players stood out for you? Drop a comment below…
Photos courtesy: Liam Coughlan.