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.
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.
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.
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.