England sealed a first U20 Grand Slam since 2011 with a 14-10 victory over Ireland at Dublin’s Donnybrook Stadium.
Considering that since then England have won three World Rugby U20 Championships, it shows just what a superb achievement it is.
Reading through the names of those in the England squad that year, it is hard not to be excited by the potential of this 2017 crop, given the achievements of the 2011 group as seniors. George Ford, Owen Farrell, Jonathan Joseph, and Elliot Daly were all a part of that squad, as were Joe Launchbury and Mako Vunipola, as well as a number of other players with full England caps to their names.
A number of this current group of U20s can be expected to join those star names, perhaps sooner rather than later, not least captain Zach Mercer and the Curry twins, Ben and Tom, who compromised the back row in Dublin, and the outstanding Nick Isiekwe in the second row, though fighting into the Saracens 1st XV with Itoje and Kruis for company will be the first challenge.
It was his second row partner and Saracens teammate Jack Nay that opened the scoring in Dublin though, peeling around the front of a five metre lineout on seventeen after some heavy England pressure before powering past the scrambling Irish forwards, caught unawares by the set piece move.
The brilliant Max Malins converted from the touchline, a truly outstanding effort in gale force conditions at Donnybrook. That driving wind was a decisive factor in the game, making kicking a risky business for both sides, demonstrated by a few kicks from hand running and running until they went dead, while both sides struggled to escape their own halves at times as they tried to avoid putting boot to ball.
For the large majority of the rest of the half Ireland took advantage of that fact, camping in the English 22, but the England defence was resolute, if a little over-exuberant at times. Time and time again they stopped Ireland short, and with Ireland turning down penalty chances in favour of trying to cross the whitewash, these were important psychological moments.
Eventually Ireland did opt for the points, with a minute left on the half, Bill Johnston narrowing the gap to 7-3.
The game hinged on the response to that penalty though, the restart held up in the wind, allowing England to regather ahead of Ireland. In a brilliant series of phases England worked they way upfield, showing fantastic handling skills with the pressure on and the clock in the red.
As they neared the Irish try line, scrum half Harry Randall held the Irish defence, before releasing former Bromsgrove hooker Henry Walker, making his first U20 start, on a brilliant line to stroll through unopposed and under the posts.
It was a stunning response to the Irish penalty, and at the crucial moment in the game, with Malins’ conversion sending his side in 14-3 up at the break.
The conditions, if anything, were even worse in the second half, turning an already close game into a real battle of desire, and boy was there a lot of desire. Both sides were giving everything, Ireland were enjoying the bulk of the dangerous possession, with full back Jordan Larmour a huge threat with the ball in hand.
If Ireland were heaping on the pressure in attack, England were absolutely dogged in defence. Time and time again they repelled the Irish surges with strong defence and brilliant line speed. At one point that line speed looked as though it had paid off, with Malins plucking on Irish pass out of the air and running the length of the field, only to be called back for a penalty.
All of that Irish pressure had to pay off at some point though, and on the 64 minute mark it did as Ireland worked phase after phase after phase in the England 22 before substitute forward Gavin Coombes crashed over from short range. Coombes had an immense game from the moment he took to the field, putting in arguably the best performance of any player form the bench this Championship.
With Johnston converting from close range, his team were just four points behind England at 14-10, and with the momentum firmly in their favour.
Back Ireland came, again and again, but this time England were holding firm, knowing that their Grand Slam depended on keeping this young Irish side out. That they did showed not just how much talent this group of young English players have, but also how much desire they have, and in many ways that is every bit as important.
It was tough though, Ireland were relentless, and as the clock moved into the red Ireland drove their way over the line. England were not going to let something like that get in their way though, forcing an arm under the ball as the it went hurtling over the line. With the clock past 80, there was no time for the scrum, giving England the win and the Grand Slam.
In many ways it was a fitting way to do it. All Championship we have seen this England side running home tries for fun, in Dublin we saw them have to dig deep and win on guts. As they move from junior internationals to senior internationals, it is the character needed to win these tough battles that will be most crucial.
Most important at this stage though is that this young group are celebrated, a first Grand Slam since 2011 is a magnificent achievement, and if they can go on to achieve just a fraction of what that class of 2011 did, then they have some very bright futures ahead indeed.
Full Time: Ireland U20 10-14 England U20
Elsewhere, France secured second place in the table with a brilliant 40-20 victory over Wales in Montauban, Wales’ bonus points keep them in third though, ahead of Ireland in fourth.
Scotland wrapped up fifth with a strong 38-17 victory over an ill-disciplined Italian side, securing their first victory of the campaign in the process.
The sides will now have a few weeks of rest before heading to Georgia for the World Rugby U20 Championships in June, where England will be looking to defend their title, and could secure a remarkable fourth title in five years.
The future looks very bright for English rugby indeed.
U20 6 Nations Final Round Results:
Ireland U20 10-14 England U20
France U20 40-20 Wales U20
Scotland U20 38-17 Italy U20
|2017 U20 6 Nations Final Table|
Ireland U20 XV
15 Jordan Larmour (St. Mary’s College/Leinster), 14 Tommy O’Brien (UCD/Leinster), 13 Gavin Mullin (UCD/Leinster), 12 Ciaran Frawley (UCD/Leinster), 11 Calvin Nash (Young Munster/Munster, captain), 10 Bill Johnston (Garryowen/Munster), 9 Jonny Stewart (Queen’s Uni/Ulster), 1 Joey Conway (UL Bohemians/Munster), 2 Tadgh McElroy (Lansdowne/Leinster), 3 Charlie Connolly (Dublin Uni/Leinster), 4 Fineen Wycherley (Young Munster/Munster), 5 Oisin Dowling (Lansdowne/Leinster), 6 John Foley (Shannon/Munster), 7 Paul Boyle (Lansdowne/Leinster), 8 Caelan Doris (St. Mary’s College/Leinster).
Replacements: 16 Ronan Kelleher (UCD/Leinster), 17 Greg McGrath (Lansdowne/Leinster), 18 Matthew Burke (Corinthians/Connacht), 19 Jack Regan (UCD/Leinster), 20 Gavin Coombes (Young Munster/Munster), 21 Jack Stafford (Shanno Munster), 22 Conor Fitzgerald (Shannon/Munster), 23 Colm Hogan (Dublin Uni/Munster).
England U20 XV
15 Tom Parton (London Irish), 14 Joe Cokanasiga (London Irish), 13 Dominic Morris (Saracens), 12 Will Butler (Worcester Warriors), 11 Sam Aspland-Robinson (Harlequins), 10 Max Malins (Saracens), 9 Harry Randall (Gloucester), 1 Ollie Dawe (Bristol), 2 Henry Walker (Gloucester), 3 Ciaran Knight (Gloucester), 4 Jack Nay (Saracens), 5 Nick Isiekwe (Saracens), 6 Tom Curry (Sale Sharks), 7 Ben Curry (Sale Sharks), 8 Zach Mercer (Bath, captain).
Replacements: 16 Jamie Blamire (Newcastle Falcons), 17 Ralph Adams-Hale (Saracens), 18 Joseph Morris (Worcester Warriors), 19 Justin Clegg (Worcester Warriors), 20 Josh Bayliss (Bath), 21 Alex Mitchell (Northampton Saints), 22 Theo Brophy Clews (London Irish), 23 Max Wright (Yorkshire Carnegie).
Scotland U20 XV:
15 Darcy Graham (Hawick), 14 Robbie Nairn (Harlequins), 13 Stafford McDowall (Ayr), 12 Ali Greig (Bristol University), 11 Logan Trotter (Stirling County), 10 Josh Henderson (Glasgow Hawks), 9 Andrew Simmers (Heriot’s), 1 George Thornton (Bishop Burton College), 2 Fraser Renwick (Hawick), 3 Adam Nicol (Stirling County), 4 Alex Craig (Gloucester), 5 Callum Hunter-Hill (Stirling County, captain), 6 Bruce Flockhart (Glasgow Hawks), 7 Matt Fagerson (Glasgow Hawks), 8 Tom Dodd (Worcester).
Replacements: 16 Robbie Smith (Ayr), 17 Daniel Winning (Boroughmuir), 18 Fergus Bradbury (Stirling County), 19 Hamish Bain (Currie), 20 Luke Crosbie (Currie), 21 Charlie Shiel (Currie), 22 Craig Pringle (Stirling County), 23 Robert Kay (Heriot’s).
Wales U20 XV
15 Rhun Williams (Cardiff Blues), 14 Corey Baldwin (Scarlets), 13 Ioan Nicholas (Scarlets), 12 Keiran Williams (c) (Ospreys), 11 Ryan Conbeer (Scarlets), 10 Ben Jones (Cardiff Blues), 9 Reuben Morgan-Williams (Ospreys), 1 Rhys Carre (Cardiff Blues), 2 Corrie Tarrant (Cardiff Blues), 3 Steff Thomas (Scarlets), 4 Alex Dombrandt (Cardiff Met), 5 Sean Moore (Pontypridd), 6 Shane Lewis-Hughes (Cardiff Blues), 7 James Botham (Cardiff Blues), 8 Aled Ward (Cardiff Blues).
Replacements: 16 Ellis Shipp (Newport Gwent Dragons), 17 Tom Mably (Cardiff Blues), 18 Keiron Assiratti (Cardiff Blues), 19 Jack Pope (Bridgend), 20 Sid Blackmore (Bath), 21 Dane Blacker (Cardiff Blues), 22 Arwel Robson (Newport Gwent Dragons), 23 Owen Lane (Cardiff Blues).