The U20 Six Nations was a mixed bag for Ireland who struggled for consistency, but they did identify some key combinations and contributors ahead of their tournament opener next week, when they will meet France, before also taking on Georgia and South Africa in Pool C.
Caelan Doris, Leinster
A veteran of last year’s tournament and the captain of the side, Doris is the logical place to start in this Ireland squad that has been hamstrung by injuries.
Fellow number eights Zach Mercer and Juarno Augustus were two of the prominent stories of the U20 Championship last season but Doris was not far behind them and with another year of experience and development under his belt, this could be the summer when he arrives on the global rugby scene.
His carrying ability will be crucial for Ireland and he has the physical ability to make the hard yards around the fringes, but also the speed and footwork to make people miss and exploit gaps in defences away from the rucks.
Matthew Dalton, Ulster
The lone non-Leinster player in this shortlist, which is both a nod to how productive the Leinster pathway currently is, but also what an impressive player that Dalton is becoming.
Either a mobile second-row or a powerful blindside flanker, Dalton will have to provide Ireland with the go forward that they have lost with strong carriers Jack O’Sullivan and Ronan Kelleher missing the tournament with injuries.
A spot on the blindside would not only free up Dalton to roam a little more and bring his carrying to the fore, it would also open a slot in the engine room for Charlie Ryan, who was eased into U20 rugby from the bench during the Six Nations.
Harry Byrne, Leinster
The younger brother of Leinster fly-half Ross Byrne, Harry was one of the bright spots for Ireland during the U20 Six Nations.
He doesn’t yet have the same control at 10 that his older brother does, but he reads the game well and sees attacking opportunities quickly in the scenarios that defences present him. He is, in fact, a very similar player to the one Ross was a couple of years ago when we saw him at this level.
With Angus Curtis missing the tournament with injury, Byrne has lost a secondary playmaker pressure valve outside of him and this will be a stern test of Byrne’s ability to pull the strings in a back line, as well as manage field position and the decision-making involved in that.
Jack Aungier, Leinster
Losing Ulster tighthead Tom O’Toole to injury is only going to add pressure on Aungier to perform over the next few weeks. Thankfully, he’s the latest in a growing line of very adept Irish tightheads coming through at this level.
Between Aungier and O’Toole, Ireland’s one-two punch at the fulcrum of the scrum would have been one of their biggest weapons in France, but instead, Ireland’s rotation policy is likely to be a little less prominent as a result and a lot physically will be asked of the Leinster man.
His scrummaging, unsurprisingly, is his biggest strength and though he is unlikely to rip off too many rampaging runs through opposition defences, he will provide Ireland with a physical carrying presence around the fringes.
Tommy O’Brien, Leinster
Like Doris, O’Brien is another remnant of Ireland’s 2017 squad, although he did miss the U20 Championship last summer due to injury, so this will be his first taste of the tournament.
The centre captained Ireland during the U20 Six Nations, with Doris absent through injury, and though the armband returns to Doris in France, O’Brien will be an important leader in the back line, particularly with Curtis also missing.
Comfortable at both 12 and 13, O’Brien may find himself brought in to inside centre to help Byrne and keep Ireland moving forward over the next few weeks, but if he can find space in the wider channels, look for him to challenge defences with his pace, hard lines and eye for a gap.
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