Ireland U20s v France: Richie Murphy’s squad can make history in World Championship decider

France have made a considerable amount of changes to the side that lost a tight game to Ireland in the Six Nations

Under-20 World Rugby Championship Final: Ireland v France, Athlone Stadium, Cape Town, Friday, 6.0 Irish time (Live on Virgin Media)

Richie Murphy’s squad stand on the threshold of history, primed for the final step as they seek to become the first Ireland team to win the Under-20 World Championship. They have emulated Nigel Carolan’s side of 2016 in reaching the final, but the current crop does so as Grand Slam champions unlike their predecessors of seven years ago.

France are looking for a hat-trick of World Cup wins having triumphed in 2018 and 2019, the last time the tournament was staged.

The tragic deaths of Andrew O’Donnell, Max Wall and Greig Oliver cast a long shadow, but the squad emerged resolute and defiant, qualities that they will need in abundance to complement their undoubtedly ability. They’ll be playing for many people but one suspects that their team-mates Jack Oliver and Hugh Cooney may top the list.

Ballymena’s James McNabney returns after suspension with Diarmuid Mangan switching to the secondrow. French coach Sebastien Calvet has made one change from the 23 that beat England 52-31 in the semi-final, with Arthur Mathiron replacing Andy Timo. For those looking to draw a formline from the Six Nations meeting between the countries, which Ireland won 33-31 in Musgrave Park, France have made substantial changes.

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Fullback Louis Bielle-Biarrey and centre Emilien Gailleton are currently preparing with Fabien Galthie’s senior squad for the World Cup on home soil, while wing Enzo Benmegal, a try scorer last February, also didn’t travel to South Africa. La Rochelle’s Hugo Reus and Clermont Auvergne scrumhalf Baptiste Jauneau have replaced Tom Raffy and Leo Carbonneau as the first-choice halfback pairing.

There are two changes to the pack: the 149kg Posolo Tuilagi, son of former Leicester Tigers, Perpignan and Samoan international, Henry, and hooker Pierre Jouvin didn’t play in Cork. It was a topsy-turvy game, Ireland initially in the ascendant, marmalising the French scrum and forcing the visitors to concede a raft of penalties in the first half and two players to the sin bin.

Yet the French only trailed 20-14 at the interval and in analysing their try-scoring DNA they bullied Ireland with their lineout maul and caught them on the edges out wide with two typically classy finishes, albeit Murphy’s side was reduced to 13 players at one point courtesy of two yellow cards that overlapped.

Ireland forwards coach Aaron Dundon said: “[We have] gone back and looked at it [the match in Cork]. Our maul is a weapon, our maul D [defence] has come on since that game. It is going to be a big challenge [but] it is an area that we can target.”

“They are a bigger pack now than they were with a couple of the players they have brought in. I think we are in a good position to be a bit better this time. Our scrum has done well but we can’t underestimate the French. If you don’t get your processes right around there and you make it messy, they love it. They’ve got weight, they are strong boys, and they love to scrum.”

French head coach Sebastien Calvet understands the threat that Ireland will pose five months after that initial clash. He said: “We mainly relied on the second half of the match in Ireland to prepare [for the final]. It was a half where we were able to be dynamic. Despite our faults we played a good game, and we weren’t far from winning. We reworked what was necessary, now we have the weapons to win this match.”

France have been imperious for large tranches of their passage to the final, dismissing New Zealand with ease and even when trailing England 24-14, they pulverised their opponents after the interval, outscoring them 38-7 over the 40-minutes.

Ireland are a better side too though, less naive and better connected in defence, a byproduct of the esprit de corps on and off the field. Murphy’s side has a cussedness too to match that considerable talent individually and collectively.

They have been buffeted and battered periodically in Six Nations matches and again in South Africa, yet remained gloriously resilient until discovering a playing solution that has allowed them to prevail in all bar the opening pool match England match, where they toughed out a fraught end game for a draw.

Hooker and captain Gus McCarthy has led this group of “best mates” as centre John Devine described the squad superbly and that sense of brotherhood: the commitment to work diligently and tirelessly for one another, to scramble, to chase, to do the mundane and the basic without hesitation that has facilitated marquee contributions of prop Paddy McCarthy and Brian Gleeson to highlight some high-profile excellence.

Ireland must have the courage to play, to use the ball intelligently, led by Fintan Gunne and Sam Prendergast at halfback, to be vigilant and disciplined at the breakdown, negating the influence of the quicksilver Baptiste Jauneau and his ability to put his forwards through gaps. He more than any other player is the metronome of the French attack.

Murphy’s side will need to deny France space and time, win the battle of the gainline, and use the set piece as a palette to paint the French into corners. And then they will need a smidgen of good fortune on top of that long ‘to-do’ list.

It’s the final time of asking for a group that has represented their country with fortitude, character and belief with perhaps enough in reserve to push them to the pinnacle of age-grade rugby.

IRELAND: H McErlean (Terenure); A Osborne (Naas), H Gavin (Galwegians), J Devine (Corinthians), J Nicholson (UCD); S Prendergast (Lansdowne), F Gunne (Terenure); P McCarthy (Dublin University), G McCarthy (UCD, capt), R Foxe (Old Belvedere); D Mangan (UCD), C O’Tighearnaigh (UCD); J McNabney (Ballymena), R Quinn (Old Crescent), B Gleeson (Garryowen).

Replacements: M Clein (Garryowen), G Hadden (Clontarf), F Barrett (Corinthians), C Irvine (QUB), E O’Connell (UL Bohemian), O Cawley (Naas), M Lynch (Dublin University), S Berman (Dublin University).

FRANCE: M Ferte; L Drouet, N Depoortere, P Costes, T Atissogbe; H Reus, B Jauneau; L Penverne, P Jouvin, Z Affane; H Auradou, P Tuilagi; L Nouchi (capt), O Jagou, M Gazotti.

Replacements: T Lacombre, L Julien, T Duchene, B Liufau, M Castro Ferreira, L Carbonneau, A Mathiron, C Mondinat.

Referee: Damián Schneider (Argentina).

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan is an Irish Times sports writer