Tag Archives: Ireland U20s

Ruddock and his Wolfpuppies Ready For France

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Ed Byrne scoring for the Wolfpuppies during their 31-26 loss to New Zealand. (c) IRB.

The Ireland U20s play host nation France in the Junior World Championship fifth-place semi finals tomorrow evening after narrowly missing out on a spot amongst the top four teams. Similarly to last year, the Wolfpuppies have impressed greatly at this tournament. The amount of talent at Ireland’s disposal and the high skill level throughout the squad offer encouraging signs for rugby in this country.

One of most impressive things about Mike Ruddock’s team has been their attitude. Over the last three years, the Welshman has worked hard to instill confidence in his U20 sides. The aim has been to convince young Irish players that they are every bit as talented as their international peers. That message is clearly getting across, with a win over Australia and an excellent performance against New Zealand in which the Wolfpuppies were clearly not overawed.

Following that loss, a quote from outhalf Steve Crosbie stuck out. Expressing his disappointment, he revealed just how ambitious the Irish U20s have become: “There is no way we are taking our foot off the pedal here now. We set our goals to win this competition, but that’s not possible now.” The fact that Ireland will see their performance as something of a failure is reason to laud Ruddock’s work at this level.

This winning attitude can only benefit Irish players in the long-term. Whereas five years ago, several of our players at this level wouldn’t have had serious thoughts about a professional career, every single one of these Wolfpuppies will expect to become a full-time professional rugby player.

The single most impressive aspect of this team is the style in which Ruddock has them playing. The Wolfpuppies have been fabulously entertaining to watch. The squad is laden with skillful players and Ruddock has played to that strength. He has given his team the freedom to offload and encouraged them to move the ball into wide channels, where their excellent support play has stood out. It’s intelligent, well-organised rugby and refreshing to watch.

Ruddock’s name was one of those in the mix to replace Declan Kidney when it became clear that Ireland would be employing a new Head Coach at senior level. With Joe Schmidt now in place, we should be thankful that Ruddock remains in charge of the Wolfpuppies. His role in the development of these young players is crucial and Irish rugby should be working hard to ensure it continues for some time yet.

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Christopher Tolofua

Tolofua at Toulouse is 120kg of beef at hooker for the French. (c) Pierre Selim.

Ireland’s opponents tomorrow night are France. The hosts have had a mixed bag of a tournament so far. In the opening game, they were 30-6 losers to England in what was a jarring disappointment. Didier Retier’s side bounced back with a  45-3 win over a weak USA side, who went on to be beaten 119-0 by England. France’s final pool game saw their most impressive performance, despite losing 26-19 to South Africa.

Based on the reputations of the players, this is not a bad French squad. Hooker Christopher Tolofua has made 16 starts for Toulouse over the past two seasons, including two in the Heineken Cup. Playing his second year at this level, the 120kg battering ram takes some stopping. In the back-row, Yoruba Camara is joining Toulouse next season after developing at Pro D2 side Massy. The rangy flanker is quick, athletic and can offload out of the tackle.

Alongside him, No. 8 Marco Tauleigne is a chunky unit at around 115kg. He spent this season with Federale 1 champions Bourgoin, but is moving to Bordeaux in the Top 14 this summer. His carrying is muscular, meaning Ireland’s back-row will need to be alert. Out wide, the French can call on Biarritz flyer Teddy Thomas. He scored four tries in four Top 14 starts this season, as well as two against Gloucester in the Amlin CC. Already a 7s international, Thomas is elusive, pacy and full of flair from fullback.

Apart from those big names, the French can call on five other players who have experience in the Top 14: prop Cyril Baille (Toulouse), sub hooker Romain Ruffanech (Biarritz), lock Leo Bastien (Agen), scrumhalf Baptiste Serin (Bordeaux) and outhalf Vincent Mallet (Stade Francais). Flanker Mathieu Babillot has already made his Heineken Cup debut for Castres. Centre Thibault Regard and winger Gabriel Lacroix are regulars at Pro D2 level. In terms of senior club level experience, the French outdo the Wolfpuppies.

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Teddy Thomas of Biarritz is a danger man for the French. (c) IRB.

However, in every other aspect of importance to this game, the Irish have more to call on. Based on the performance’s of both teams at this JWC, Ireland are the favourites. France have the advantage of playing at home, but that did them no good against England and South Africa. Furthermore, the Wolfpuppies were 22-5 winners when these sides met in Athlone back in March. Both squads have changed somewhat since then, but Ireland have developed far more rapidly.

The Baby ‘Boks made plenty of metres in wide channels against France, and Ireland should look to exploit that weakness too. The French wingers are quick but very lightweight and that should suit the Wolfpuppies. England created several line breaks of the French defence with short passes to support runners inside and outside their centres. Again, those trail lines are something Ruddock’s men are good at, and we should hope to see more of the same.

The French pack are strong in their carrying around the fringes of rucks through the likes of Tolofua, Tauleigne and Baille. No surprise really, with Les Bleus legend Fabien Pelous as manager of the team. Ireland will need to ensure their defence is solid either side of the breakdown.

Ireland appear to have all the tools to ensure a 5th-place playoff final at the JWC for the second year running. Either Australia and Argentina await in that game. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, the French must be dealt with first. Here’s hoping that the Wolfpuppies will be celebrating another win tomorrow night.

At the end of the day, this is a development tournament with the aim of producing professional players. Irish professionals for whom beating the likes of Australia and France is the norm would be greatly welcome.

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You can listen to me talking about the Ireland U20s and this game on yesterday’s Big Red Bench on Cork’s Red FM. Have a listen here:

Photos: Pierre Selim, IRB.

Ireland’s Fifth Province

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The following is a guest post by Rory O’Kane.

Ireland’s official rugby anthem Ireland’s Call mentions the four proud provinces of Ireland in its lyrics but fails to mention the Irish Exiles, who have been fundamental to Irish rugby. The Exiles system has provided us with players of the calibre of Simon Geoghegan, Simon Easterby, Rob Henderson and Nick Popplewell. The latter trio were Test Lions, while Geoghegan was touted as a likely Lion prior to injury in 1997.

With Ireland having a relatively small rugby population, Ireland needs the biggest player pool it can possibly get and the Exiles system facilitates the growth of Irish rugby’s player pool.

In recent years the link with the Irish exiles had weakened. Players such as Shane Geraghty, Andrew Sheridan, Nick Kennedy, Paul Doran-Jones (Ireland U19, U21) and Kieran Brookes (Ireland U18, U19, U20) slipped through the net. However, Irish rugby wasn’t overly concerned; after all it was too busy basking in the success of the “golden generation” of 2004-09 with three Triple Crowns, a first Grand Slam in 61 years and the unprecedented success of the provinces at Heineken Cup level.

It took the 2012 scrum fiasco in Twickenham for the IRFU to decide to strengthen the Exile link with the intention of increasing Irish rugby’s player pool and, more particularly, to unearth a few tight-head props. The IRFU have since appointed Mark Blair as the Development Manager for the Irish Exiles, an arm of the IRFU that runs representative sides for Irish-qualified players based in England, Scotland and Wales. He commented upon his appointment:

“This is a full-time IRFU position because they want to work much more closely with the Exiles. We feel we are only scratching the surface of the players in England, Scotland and Wales that are available to play for Ireland.

It is an alternative opportunity and we are not trying to take players away from anywhere else. But we want to offer that choice to young players of being eligible to play for Ireland.

The recession has seen more Irish people move to Britain and we want to give a pathway for young-Irish qualified players to progress their rugby with the possibilities of international rugby and also the chance to move to Ireland.”

The IRFU already appear to be reaping the rewards of utilising their Exile branch again. No less than 7 Exiles being involved with Ireland U20’s this season:

2013 Irish U20 Exiles

Conor Joyce (Ulster Rugby):  Solihull-born Joyce down the Leicester Tigers academy to join Ulster last season.  The 6ft 3ins blindside/no. 8 has made seven appearances for the U20s this year and has even captained the side against Fiji. He is held in high regard in Ravenhill and even made his Ulster debut against Glasgow in February.

George McGuigan (Newcastle Falcons): Standing at 6ft and 105kg, the hooker has been a mainstay in the no. 2 jersey for Ireland making six U20 appearances. In April, he was rewarded with a one-year contract at Newcastle, despite not having made his Falcons’ debut yet. He has made the first team bench as an unused substitute. McGuigan spent last season on a dual-registration deal with Tynesdale in National League 1.

Ryan Furness (Worcester Warriors): The tighthead prop has been battling Adam Boland and Chris Taylor for the number 3 jersey. Despite regularly making the match day squads in both the Six Nations and JWC he has yet to start. Furness has made two first team appearances for Worcester Warriors.

David Panter (Connacht Rugby): The 5ft 11ins Surrey-born fullback was identified through the Exiles system and signed by the Connacht academy. A former Ireland U18 clubs international, he has made five Ireland U20 appearances and is part of the JWC squad.

Alex Wootton (Northampton Saints): The Saints winger was called up to replace the injured Tom Daly in the current JWC. Wootten was part of Northampton’s squad for the 2012 Premiership 7s. He was capped at U16 level by England. The speedster spent this season on a dual-registration deal at Cambridge. Wootten is eligible for the Ireland U20s again next season.

Jake Caulfield (Ulster Rugby): The 6ft 3ins, 18 stone prop from Western-Supermare spent two seasons in the London Irish academy before joining Bristol for a season. In October of 2012 Ulster signed him on a 3-year contract. He also had a spell in New Zealand with Petone in Wellington. Caulfield is a former England U16 and U17 international and can play both sides of the scrum. He made 1 Ireland U20 appearance vs Wales in the Six Nations.

Alex O’ Meara From the famed Hartpury College, the winger made his single Ireland U20 appearance vs Wales in the Six Nations.

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You can follow Rory O’Kane, author of this piece, on Twitter. You can also follow the Irish Exiles on Twitter. For more on Irish players based abroad, click the ‘Exiled Irish’ tab at the top of the page.

Wolfpuppies Show Grit

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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.

TOM CLIFFORD PARK

Irish U20s captain Niall Scannell (diving for ball) in Dolphin colours. (c) Liam Coughlan.

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.

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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…

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Photos courtesy: Liam Coughlan.