Ireland will be without number eight Brian Gleeson for Friday night’s Under-20 international against Italy at Musgrave Park (7.15pm) after the Tipperary man picked up a knock in the thrilling 37-31 victory over France in Aix-en-Provence. It is not thought to be too serious.
Gleeson, one of the team’s outstanding players in the opening match and a try scorer, will be replaced by Shannon’s Luke Murphy, who started on the bench in France. There are two other changes in the starting pack, Old Wesley hooker Stephen Smyth comes into the frontrow with Danny Sheahan, another try scorer in France, dropping to the replacements.
UCD’s Andrew Sparrow is injured so Jacob Boyd, a son of former Ulster prop Clem, comes in at tighthead prop, while Sale Sharks’ Patreece Bell is promoted to the matchday 23, as is Sean Edogbo, the UCC student, a younger brother of Munster secondrow Edwin.
Ireland’s new backs coach, Ian Keatley, explained the thinking behind the composition of the matchday 23. “It’s a 30-man squad [that we work with] and we do want to give a lot of guys a chance.
“Some are forced through injury; Brian [Gleeson] is waiting on a scan, to get the results back. He had a bit of an ankle problem. We’ll just wait and see. A few guys were deserving of their chance and there’s such good competition in the group that when we do have selection meetings, they go on for a long time. We want to give the lads the respect they deserve.”
The former Irish international outhalf, who played club rugby with Connacht, Munster, London Irish, Benetton and Glasgow Warriors, knows a thing or two about a 20s Grand Slam having won one in 2007.
There were many virtues in Ireland’s 37-31 victory some of which Keatley extolled. “The fact that we went behind, the fact we kept playing the style of rugby we wanted to play, the fact that the bench came in and made such an impact, and the guys who were U20s last year really stepped up.
“Brian Gleeson, Joe Hopes, Hugh Gavin, they had a massive impact on the match, Evan O’Connell too as captain. It was incredible for those guys to step up and then the new guys getting their experience and stamping their mark.”
Ireland beat Friday night’s opponents Italy in a pre-Christmas friendly at the Belfield Bowl but having led 35-17 at half-time they didn’t score again as the visitors came up just six points short (35-29) in the end.
One of the standout performers that afternoon was Ireland centre Wilhelm de Klerk and despite switching from inside to outside centre since then he’s retained his midfield buddy Hugh Gavin, not only a try scorer against France but one of the game’s outstanding performers.
De Klerk was born in South Africa but moved to Ireland aged 10 after his father got a job here, initially for two years but the family enjoyed it so they settled here. The teenager’s rugby bona fides include Malahide and Clontarf rugby clubs and in secondary schools, St Andrew’s and then St Michael’s, the latter for his final two years.
His coach in Michael’s is now his head coach at UCD, Emmet McMahon, a person to whom de Klerk pays tribute for his development as a player. That talent is pretty obvious and on Friday night at Musgrave Park, Ireland will be hoping that their midfield can be similarly influential.
De Klerk said of playing with Gavin: “I think he showed how good he is as a 12 at the weekend, absolutely incredible performance from him, really stepped up as a leader. Honestly, we have figured out the partnership and I think it is working really well. His experience from last year has helped me so much.
“It’s always easy to have a six foot three, 105kg centre next to you, he just gets over the gainline. He is very good, and it is nice working with someone of his class.”
An exciting backline? “It’s unreal. Having [halfbacks] who can control the game as well as Ollie [Coffey] and Jack [Murphy] do makes it a lot easier for us outside backs. Hugh is unbelievable, the two wingers [Hugo McLaughlin and Finn Treacy] too. ‘Boc’ (Ben O’Connor has) that experience with Munster and how he has brought it in has been class. It’s really nice to be in a backline like this.
“It’s going to be my first time playing in Musgrave Park so I think that will be pretty interesting to see that level of crowd being behind us. I’m really excited for it.”
Ireland: B O’Connor (UCC); F Treacy (Galwegians), W de Klerk (UCD), H Gavin (Galwegians), H McLaughlin (Lansdowne); J Murphy (Clontarf), O Coffey (Blackrock College); A Usanov (Clontarf); S Smyth (Old Wesley), J Boyd (QUB); A Spicer (UCD), E O’Connell (UL Bohemian, capt); J Hopes (QUB), B Ward (Ballynahinch), L Murphy (Shannon).
Replacements: D Sheahan (Cork Constitution), B Howard (Terenure College) P Bell (Sale Sharks), B Corrigan (Old Wesley), S Edogbo (UCC), T Brophy (Naas), S Naughton (Galway Corinthians), E Graham (Ballynahinch)