Junior World Championship: Irish lads primed to take on the world
Ulster’s Niall Annett, who captains Ireland Under-20s against their English counterparts in tonight’s Junior World Championship curtain-raiser (5.10pm, Sky Sports 4), admits that he will be leading the underdogs.
That’s hardly surprising; when the Mike Ruddock-coached Irish last met England — at Dubarry Park in March — they lost 46-10 to a side en route to the 2010/11 Under-20s Six Nations Grand Slam.
True, Ireland were without a number of first-choice players that night in Athlone and with those absentees back on board tonight they are expected to fare a lot better than in that ill-fated encounter.
All told there are 11 changes to the side hammered by England last time out.
“Obviously we have huge respect for the English,” says former Methodist College hooker Annett, now with Belfast Harlequins.
“We know it’s going to be tough but we have done our homework. I’m sure they have, too, so it will be an interesting game.”
Annett has refused to dwell on that heavy March defeat. As he sees it that is only significant as a spur to players whose pride took a battering that night.
“We really didn’t play very well,” he admits. “We didn’t play much rugby.
“I think we’ll play slightly differently (this time) and it will be a cracker to watch,” is his forecast.
He knows that a winning start is hugely important.
“Yes, this is massive. The first win or loss could really determine the rest of your tournament,” he agrees.
Ireland and England are joined in Pool C by Scotland and South Africa.
“South Africa are going to be very strong as are the Scots,” Annett concedes. “But at this level there are no easy games.”
Form in the competition does not favour them, however — Ireland finished bottom of their group in last year’s JWC, ultimately coming ninth overall.
This is an experienced Irish squad, however, with Ulster flanker Dominic Gallagher and Exiles scrum-half Kieran Marmion the only players who did not feature in this year's Six Nations Championship.
Last year’s JWC winners were New Zealand who have emerged triumphant in each of the past three years. Once again they are seen as being the side to beat.
At this stage, however, Ireland would settle for seeing off England for with there being only three four-team pools it is the group-stage winners plus the best of the trio of runners-up who go through to the semi-finals.
England and also-strongly-fancied South Africa are among the favourites to claim places in the last four, making Ireland outsiders.
Nor could the fixtures have fallen much worse, for after tonight’s showdown in which the rivals from opposite sides of the Irish Sea go head-to-head at Treviso’s Stadio Communale di Monigo (kick-off 5.10), Ireland next face the young Springboks on Tuesday night (7.10) at the same venue.
Former Irish international Niall Malone is Ruddock’s assistant and with Ireland’s strength and conditioning coach being David Drake, Ulster have a huge representation in Italy.
Add to that the fact that Ireland’s 26-strong squad includes nine players from the province — only Leinster, with 11, have more, while Connacht are providing three and there are two from Munster plus a solitary Exile — and it was inevitable that there would be a sizeable northern representation in tonight’s curtain-raiser.
The line-up at Benetton Treviso’s 6,700-capacity Stadio Communale di Monigo sees six Ulster players — three in the pack, three more behind it — in the starting 15 plus a further two on the bench.
Craig Gilroy is named at full-back, with his Dungannon clubmate Paddy Jackson calling the shots from fly-half. Ballymena’s Luke Marshall lines out in the centre.
Up front, Ulster have a representative in all three divisions — Annett at hooker, Iain Henderson in the engine-room and Gallagher on the open side.