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Ireland's young aces can set even bigger targets after shot at glory

By Jonathan Bradley

Twelve years ago, while the senior side were enduring a 2-0 whitewash in South Africa, Ireland's underage team were on the verge of history only to lose out to New Zealand with a world title on the line.

Now, Joe Schmidt's men are enjoying vastly different fortunes in the Rainbow nation, and the under-20s are hoping for the same as they bid to go one better and become World Champions tonight (7pm kick-off).

After an eye-catching month for Nigel Carolan's men that has included emerging unscathed from a pool with Six Nations Grand Slam winners Wales and last year's champions New Zealand, England are all that stand between them and glory.

Back in 2004, it was future internationals Tommy Bowe, Jamie Heaslip, Tomas O'Leary and Declan Fitzpatrick serving as the star attractions while Armagh-born Exeter Chief Gareth Steenson was the team's out-half.

With Bowe forced home injured and replaced in the party by his current teammate Andrew Trimble, five players who were at the tournament went on to play for the senior side.

After such an impressive tournament in Manchester, and especially in the wake of Monday's semi-final dismantling of Argentina, hopes are rising that this year's crop can make their own mark on the professional game.

Max Deegan has caught the eye at number 8 and has been nominated for player of the tournament, just as Heaslip was after the previous final run, while his fellow Lansdowne and Leinster man James Ryan has been an inspirational figure as the team's captain and leads the same 23 that beat the Pumas against the red rose.

Their provincial colleague Andrew Porter has looked beastly come scrum-time and powerful in the loose while Hugo Keenan is another to impress and Bill Johnston looked promising before injury ended his tournament. Ulstermen have also impressed with hooker Adam McBurney giving a robust presence in the number 2 jersey and full-back Jacob Stockdale, who has already appeared in the Pro12, running in four tries during the tournament.

For McBurney, lifting the trophy this evening would be a fitting way to repay all the support that has helped him reach this point before he returns home to try and force his way into the senior reckoning at Kingspan Stadium.

"Every time I put the Ireland shirt on I treat it like it's my first and last time," he said.

"Everyone has a special reason why they want to pull that jersey on, whether it be the fact that it's just your country, or it's for the support your family and friends have given you.

"That's one of my aspects, pulling it on because of what everyone else has done for me and doing it for everyone else, not just myself.

"I've talked to the head coach Les Kiss a couple of times recently but at Ulster it's quite a strong competition with at least four guys ahead of me."

For now though, the focus remains firmly on proceedings tonight at Sale's AJ Bell Stadium with Keith Earls revealing this week that the squad's senior counterparts have been taking note of events back in England.

"The U-20s, they're flying out with massive a win against New Zealand and now they're going onto the final against England," said the Munsterman who starts for Schmidt against South Africa this afternoon.

"For a small country, we're a really proud country and you know it doesn't matter what we're playing, everybody gets behind us. You can feel that from home, the messages you can feel it everywhere, you can see it on the TV with the U-20s support."

Belfast Telegraph


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