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FEATURE Munster prospects aim to drive Ireland U20s to world glory

Munster prospects aim to drive Ireland U20s to world glory
3 weeks ago

“He’s a big lad, and so explosive. He makes yards for fun and he eats people up.”

When it comes to back-row prospects, Stephen Ferris has a good eye for what can give a guy the edge. The former Ireland and Lions flanker was not the only one to get caught up, last summer, in Brian Gleeson’s Under-20 deeds, down in South Africa.

Paddy McCarthy, Sam Berman and Sam Prendergast all caught the eye, but it was Gleeson and his Munster team-mate, Ruadhan Quinn, that really pumped the blood. Both excelled in the semi-final win over hosts, South Africa, combining for 15 carries, 77 metres gained and 38 tackles. Gleeson took off for one carry – big left paw fending lads away – that resulted in a superb second-half try.

The Tipperary prospect had only turned 19, a few months previous. The three-year pause in the U20 tournament had denied so many young talents that stage upon which to grab attention. Provided with it in South Africa, Gleeson was all-singing, all-dancing. All action, too. Munster have themselves a player there.

Brian Gleeson
Brian Gleeson starred in Ireland’s run to the World U20s final last year and is back for another crack (Photo World Rugby via Getty Images)

One year on, Gleeson is back for a second crack. Up until February of this season, though, there was an outside chance he could have made it on the senior tour to South Africa.

Gleeson made his senior Munster debut in mid-October, coming off the bench in a home win over Sharks. An under-age hurler for Tipperary, the Loughmore native has more than justified his secondary school switch to the oval ball. In the space of just three months, he made another nine appearances and scored his first Munster try, against Dragons. There was invaluable Champions Cup experience against Exeter, Toulon and Northampton, along that break-through way.

Two days before he turned 20, Gleeson picked up an ankle injury against France, in the U20 Six Nations, that required surgery and threatened to derail his season. He battled back to feature in a May win over Edinburgh and is flying fit for another tilt at a prize that has, thus far, eluded Ireland.

The biggest loss for Ireland has been the departure of head coach Richie Murphy, the man that led the U20s to Six Nations Grand Slams in 2022 and 2023.

With 13, Leinster lead the way for players included in Willie Faloon’s Ireland squad for the World Rugby U20s Championship. Munster, though, provide a high-ceiling trio that have previous championship experience, in Gleeson, Danny Sheahan and captain Evan O’Connell. That may prove crucial in securing a first ever world title at this level.

Ireland finished second to England in this year’s U20 Six Nations. Both sides won four matches, with England claiming top prize due to bagging an extra try-scoring bonus point. The competition’s top two played out a thrilling 32-32 draw at The Rec, in March, with a late, converted Sean Naughton try fitting reward for a side that refused to panic and backed themselves to fashion one last chance. It was somewhat surreal to see how calm they all were, under the posts, as Sean Kerr lined up to convert Ben Waghorn’s 76th-minute try. Next job focus, in full effect.

The biggest loss for Ireland has been the departure of head coach Richie Murphy, the man that led the U20s to Six Nations Grand Slams in 2022 and 2023. Murphy was drafted in by the IRFU to rescue Ulster’s tilting season. He did such a good job – ensuring Champions Cup rugby and reaching the URC knock-out stages – that he was awarded a two-season contract in Belfast. Replacing him in the top U20s job is former Connacht and Ulster back-row, Faloon. Aaron Dundon and former Ireland out-half Ian Keatley remain in place, with former Ulster scrum-half, and coach, Neil Doak added into the mix.

Richie Murphy
Richie Murphy led Ireland to back-to-back U20 Six Nations titles before taking over at Ulster (Photo David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

Ireland have five players heading back to South Africa, desperate to go one better than last year’s sobering final defeat to France. Scrum-half Fintan Gunne put Ireland into an early lead in that game, taking a quick-tap penalty and somehow shunting 23-stone France lock Posolo Tuilagi back, to ground the ball. That was as good as it got, though, with France running in seven tries in a 50-14 win. It is worth noting that 10 of that starting XV have made regular Top 14 appearances this season, with Tuilagi and Nicolas Depoortere both capped at Test level.

That was the second time Ireland came within a game of the world championship. The first heartache was served up in 2016, with Leinster’s Max Deegan named player of the tournament and New Zealand bested along the way. Head-turners in that Ireland side also included Andrew Porter, James Ryan and Jacob Stockdale, who would all go on to make their Test debuts within the next 12 months.

In Ireland, it is very common within GAA circles to hear the phrase, ‘Yeah, but you should see the younger brother’… Seán Edogbo is one such younger brother

Ireland teamed up Seán Edogbo and Bryn Ward with Luke Murphy in their final Six Nations game, a 36-0 shellacking of Scotland. Plugging Gleeson into that back row adds some extra punch, while Ulster’s James McKillop is another solid option.

In Ireland, it is very common within GAA circles to hear the phrase, ‘Yeah, but you should see the younger brother’. Standing 6ft 5in and spotted coming a mile off – such were his grade-level performances – Seán Edogbo is one such younger brother, 18 months younger than Edwin Edogbo, who plays lock for Munster and was having an excellent season until a wretched knee injury against Leinster. It was younger brother Seán that got Edwin hooked on competitive rugby, both of them lining out for Cobh Pirates, in Cork. They would go on to play in the All-Ireland League for University College Cork, with Seán experiencing his first viral sporting moment, in January 2023, when he hosed in an 80-metre try against Old Belvedere.

Seán Edogbo was drafted onto the bench for the home game against Italy in this year’s U20 Six Nations. When he was brought on, it took him only 10 minutes to deliver the match-winning score, thundering down the right wing and bouncing Mirko Belloni aside, on his way. That introduction merited his first start, against Wales, a fortnight later. Edogbo registered another try, and also scored against Scotland.

Ireland’s top try-scorer in that Six Nations campaign was hooker Sheahan, who crossed the white-wash on five occasions. Of course, he is not to be confused with Leinster hooker Dan Sheehan, who himself scored five tries in this year’s senior men’s Six Nations. That Irish production line is humming. Danny is the nephew of Munster legend, Frankie Sheahan, while his brother, Jacob played in the U20 team that claimed a Grand Slam in last year’s Six Nations.

Sticking with nephews of Munster rugby legends, we have Ireland captain O’Connell. Having made his senior Munster debut, aged 18, against Ulster in October 2022, O’Connell was a natural choice to lead this year’s crop. Uncle Paul O’Connell will be coaching the forwards in Andy Farrell’s senior squad, also in South Africa, this summer. The Limerick lock played every minute for Ireland in the U20 Six Nations and featured off the bench in last year’s final defeat to France.

Evan O'Connell
Evan O’Connell, nephew of Ireland legend Paul, will lead Ireland U20s in South Africa (Photo Bob Bradford – CameraSport via Getty Images)

Other Ireland prospects to keep a close eye on are Sam Berman, Wilhelm de Klerk and Jack Murphy, son of former coach Richie. All three were snapped up by Ulster on academy deals when Leinster had no room at the proverbial inn, for next season. With Billy Burns off to Munster, Murphy will hope to show his father, and more, what he can do in the 10 jersey against some top, young sides. De Klerk has something about him, like Gleeson, and is one you should enjoy seeing in action.

Finally, so I can claim victory in years to come, Alex Usanov is an 18-year-old loosehead from Clontarf Rugby Club. He played all five games in the Six Nations, starting four. His scrummaging is coming on, from an already solid base, and he can shift it with ball in hand.


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Alexander 27 days ago

Good luck to em. Would be awesome for Ireland to get a WC at any level, as they're that good!

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