Sean Farrell reports from Musgrave Park
THE OUTPOURING OF emotion lasted just a few minutes after the final whistle of Ireland U20s’ sensational 31-29 win over France on Friday.
The players could not have known, could not have allowed the extra variable in their mind, that Scotland were putting Wales to the sword while the hosts in Cork were holding off the world champions.
Yet there was no second wave of celebration when word filtered through of the result in Meggetland. Instead, Ireland’s players continued to mingle on either side of the hoardings in front of the stand, engaged in tired post-hug chats with proud family members.
They knew they were champions. And they had already resolved to complete a Grand Slam.
“Everyone is on a huge high,” says Sean French after being torn out of the changing room for media duty.
Thomas Clarkson celebrates with Sean French. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO
“The atmosphere was absolutely phenomenal. Everyone is buzzing, but we are going back to the drawing board. We will review the game, happy out. Wales will be another huge challenge next week and there is no doubt that we want to finish the job that we started.”
It’s an admirably professional stance to take, but winning a Championship with a game to spare is nothing to be sniffed at, so we ask French to briefly shake off the blinkers and assess the medal he can expect to hang above his 2017 Schools Cup reward for kicking all 11 points in PBC’s win over Glenstal.
“Our main goal was obviously to win the Six Nations. Thankfully that’s done.
“But with the competitive nature that is in this group, we will enjoy tonight, we’ll go back, we will review it. There won’t be any major celebrations. We want to finish what we started. Hopefully we will be all smiles in Wales.”
However much hair was let down over the weekend, today it’s back to the work of matching the feats of the 2007 age-grade vintage – featuring Keith Earls, Felix Jones, Darren Cave, Ian Keatley and Cian Healy – by sealing the Grand Slam.
French makes a break against Les Bleus. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO
For teams with less malleable mental strength, the loss of captain David Hawkshaw might have been a hammer blow. But French leapt at the chance to slot in at the centre for having cut his teeth in the position at PBC.
Some other team might have cracked when out-half Harry Byrne pulled out late. Yet French and Noel McNamara immediately looked to the positive of Munster men working in tandem at 10 and 12.
“I’ve been playing with Ben (Healy) for three or four years and I backed him and I backed myself and thankfully it paid off,” French says of brilliant break the pair engineered in the lead up to Josh Wycherley’s opening try.
French on the run for Cork Con this season. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO
“Ben is a super player. In that back-line, we all trust each other. There were a good few Munster lads and we have been playing against each other since we were 14 years of age and then Senior Cup last year.
“We are competitive when we are against each other but when we are with each other, we just seem to gel. Even with Munster U18 Schools, Munster U19 Schools and luckily enough, Ireland U18s and U19s.
“We have been with each other for a good few years and we know how to play with each other.”
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And it’s more than the personnel that helped French feel utterly at home in the title decider against Les Bleus. Musgrave Park is a familiar back-drop for the 19-year-old, knowing the lay of the land must have helped even if there was no comparison to be drawn between the atmosphere between Friday’s full house and his schoolboy exploits.
French kicking PBC to the 2017 Munster Schools Cup. Source: Ken Sutton/INPHO
“I have been playing in this stadium since I was 15 years of age. Musgrave Park is special but I haven’t experienced anything like the atmosphere in the two (games) here with the 20s.
“We never thought the Cork atmosphere would be as good as it was and a huge thanks goes out (to supporters) because I don’t think we could have done it without them.”
The crowd were merely holding up their end of the bargain. McNamara’s men gave them plenty to shout about as they went toe-to-toe with last year’s World Championship finalists, and beat them both.
“We are a very tight bunch and I think that is the difference between us and a few of the teams,” says French.
“Everyone on the pitch would literally die for each other. We are a very tight bunch off the field and I think that shows on the field.”