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The message Ireland have given to missed kicks Sam Prendergast

By Liam Heagney
Sam Prendergast (right) finished the game in Paarl with just two successes from six off the kicking tee (Photo by World Rugby)

The Junior World Championship hasn’t hung around in quickly heaping the pressure on Ireland, the back-to-back Six Nations Grand Slam champions of 2022 and 2023. Richie Murphy’s charges have a canny knack for confidently negotiating the five-games-across-seven-weekends format in February and March. The more compressed June tournaments, though, have historically stretched them just a bit too much.

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Two years ago, when the pandemic delayed Six Nations was compressed into five behind-closed-doors games in 24 days in Cardiff, they lost twice to finish third. Then last year, in the summer series staged in Italy that included South Africa at the expense of Wales, the four games in 18 days schedule saw them defeated twice to finish fifth best.

Now comes another intriguing June week that will test their capacity to the hilt in a tournament where the schedule demands them to play five games in a 20-day period through to July 14. This Ireland certainly isn’t in South Africa just to make up the numbers.

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Reaching the semi-finals for the first time since 2016 in Manchester is very much their target, but Saturday’s compelling high-scoring draw against England in Paarl has very much made next Thursday’s pool clash with Australia a cup final in its own right.

Sharing the spoils with the English just 14 weeks after they had defeated them by 12 points in Cork to clinch the Grand Slam was an eye-catching outcome. Usually, if Ireland scored six tries and a total of 34 points, they would be home and hosed and the post-game smiles would be gleeful.

Not on this occasion, however. Instead, the strange sight of normally deadly Sam Prendergast missing four of his six conversion kicks enabled England to secure their rivetting 34-all draw. Head coach Murphy, though, a goal-kicker in his long-ago playing days, defiantly refused to allow his star No10 to be blamed for Ireland only managing a D and not a W.

“Sam will be disappointed with the couple of kicks that he missed but as a team, we have got to make sure we are not relying on our kicker to win games for us,” explained Murphy to RugbyPass. “Sam missed a couple of goal kicks but there are other areas of the game that we could have done a little bit better which would have taken the pressure off Sam and we wouldn’t have needed him.

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“Look, he will brush himself off. He will be disappointed, but we will move on very quickly. He is a top-class goal-kicker; he will be fine.”

So too will Ireland, he optimistically figured. “Definitely, we are a little bit disappointed, but we are also in a really good position. We got three points out of the game and have two more games to come. If we can win those two games, we should be really in a good place in relation to going forward into that semi-final slot.

“Our message will be very clear – we need to look, and we need to learn very quickly, and we need to move on. In this competition, we don’t get time to wallow, and we are in a really good place getting three points out of the game. We have just got to move on straightaway.”

Murphy’s hot takes will feed into that process, the coach explaining why he felt England were able to force a draw on this occasion compared to succumbing to Irish pressure three months ago. “Look, their forwards got to us a little bit at the breakdown. The referee’s interpretation of what was happening there was interesting, we definitely didn’t get the rub of the green in that area.

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“A little bit disappointed around that because it is one of the strengths of our game. Like, we don’t normally turn over that amount of ball, so we need to have a look at that and be better and I suppose the other area is we didn’t get out of our end very well. Our kicking game or our decision-making in relation to when to play the space or when to get ourselves out needs to probably be a little bit better.”

The heavy ground in Paarl had an effect, a factor that Murphy alluded to after praising the vocal level of support that Ireland attracted. “A lot of families travelled over, which is brilliant. I suppose they are having a great time in Cape Town.

“Unfortunately, the weather hasn’t been amazing for them and while Saturday was a good day for rugby, the pitch was very heavy and that probably sucks the legs out of our lads a little bit. We have got some big forwards in our back five. We don’t actually have big props, but that weight on those players and the heavy ground can make it very tough.

“I’m incredibly proud of the guys. This team is an incredible team to be around, they work really hard, they are massively motivated to be the best they can be. That is all we can ask. They are disappointed now which is great, I know that we have to move on very quickly and start preparing for Australia.”

Ireland finished their opening match with 14 players as midfielder Hugh Cooney was red-carded for a tackle in the closing minutes. Murphy didn’t reference that decision post-game, but his final word went on the smart ball that was trialled on Saturday with a view to helping the referee to make decisions in five areas of the game.

The coach wasn’t fully satisfied. “I thought there were a couple of crooked throws from England in the second half that weren’t picked up. The one thing is if you are going to use the technology it has to be telling the right information and it definitely seemed like there were a couple of crooked throws in the second half that were missed.”

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