England are a challenge to which Ireland’s Under-20 can rise again

Following their Grand Slam victory, Richie Murphy’s team need to start their World Championship campaign with a bang


Ireland U-20 v England U-20, Saturday, Paarl Gimnasium, Paarl (12.30pm Irish time, live on Virgin Media 2)

If Sam Prendergast believes that comparisons are odious, he doesn’t let on, his demeanour pleasant and accommodating as he fielded the inevitable question about his provincial team-mate and Ireland captain Johnny Sexton.

He’d have to be familiar with the heir-apparent analogy that bubbles to the surface every time Prendergast excels on a rugby pitch, a not uncommon phenomenon.

But the players’ paths have rarely crossed on or off the pitch. He explained: “I have chatted to him a few times. At the start of the year when he was fit for Leinster, I was kind of on a bit of a development block preparing for the [Under-20] Six Nations.

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“But any time I was called on in Leinster, he was away playing Six Nations, November internationals. It’s been great to get to chat with him, but I have only ever trained with him a handful of times really.”

Sexton will hope to apply the coup de grace to a marvellous career at the World Cup in France later this year; Prendergast is in the foothills but tournaments like the Under-20 World Championship can help to accelerate a journey to prominence at senior level.

Prendergast was excellent in Ireland’s Grand Slam success, but he was far from alone. Number eight Brian Gleeson, who is recovering from a niggle and starts on the bench, Ruadhán Quinn, Diarmuid Mangan, Conor O’Tighearnaigh, Hugh Gavin, Hugh Cooney and James McNabney produced key moments in that run of victories for a group superbly led by hooker Gus McCarthy.

Ireland head coach Richie Murphy, who has presided over successive Grand Slams in 2022 and 2023, finally gets a chance to test his coaching mettle at a World Cup. The numbers highlight the magnitude of the task: five matches, 25 days with a 30-man squad that must be rotated to try to preserve zest in the collective from the first to last match.

England were the last team Ireland played in the Six Nations in March and the first who will oppose them in South Africa. Murphy has made two alterations in personnel, with Andrew Osborne and Evan O’Connell coming into the team while Mangan and McNabney shifted positions in the reshuffle. Max Clein is set to make a debut off the bench.

England have a new head coach in Mark Mapletoft, and he’s made four alterations to the run-on side from that game in Cork. Connor Slevin, a fullback, is named at outhalf, Joe Jenkins comes in on the left wing, while prop Asher Opoku-Fordjour and secondrow Harvey Cuckson are the changes to the pack.

England are a strong ball-carrying team, with centre Reiketi Ma’asi-White, captain Lewis Chessum and outstanding number eight Chandler Cunningham-South especially prominent, while in wing Tobias Elliott they possess a brilliant prospect who already has two tries to his name against Ireland.

Ireland have their eyes on the prize. Murphy explained: “We don’t look back, we look forward. Probably from the very start of the year our focus was on trying to prepare to get ready for the Junior World Cup and compete at the highest level. It didn’t change through the Six Nations.”

“Our focus is trying to get through this English game at the weekend. There are plans in the background that the players don’t really need to know about, plans with the coaches in relation to what we do against Australia and then Fiji.

“Some of those are results-dependent but if you want to win a Junior World Cup you’ve got to have 30 players who are able to play, and you’ve got to be brave in some of your selections.”

That was a characteristic Ireland showed in spades in the Six Nations. A heavy week of rain and a soft pitch on which three matches will be played – Ireland are second on – won’t suit Ireland per se, but all season they have refused to reach for excuses.

Murphy’s side have all the tools to win and, provided there is some progression in the substance and nuance of the game plan from last March’s clash between the countries, they should manage to repeat that success.

Ireland: H McErlean (Terenure); A Osborne (Naas), H Cooney (Clontarf), J Devine (Corinthians), H Gavin (Galwegians); S Prendergast (Lansdowne), F Gunne (Terenure); G Hadden (Clontarf), G McCarthy (UCD, capt), P McCarthy (Dublin University); E O’Connell (UL Bohemian), C O’Tighearnaigh (UCD); D Mangan (UCD), R Quinn (Old Crescent), J McNabney (Ballymena). Replacements: M Clein (Garryowen), G Morris (Lansdowne), F Barrett (Corinthians), C Irvine (QUB), B Gleeson (Garryowen), O Cawley (Naas), M Lynch (Dublin University), J Nicholson (UCD).

England: S Harris; T Elliott, R Ma’asi-White, J Woodward, J Jenkins; C Slevin, C Bracken; A Opoku-Fordjour, F Theobald-Thomas, A Fasogbon; H Cuckson, L Chessum (capt); F Carnduff, G Fisilau, C Cunningham-South. Replacements: N Jibulu, A McArthur, J Halliwell, N Michelow, T Woodman, N Thomas, L Johnson, J Cusick.

Referee: L Ramos (France).