Defending title not heavy burden for skipper McCann

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David McCann may be leading Ireland into this year’s U20 Six Nations as defending champions but the Grand Slam winner refuses to accept his side will be burdened by their status.

The U20s side returns to Cork in nine days to begin the 2020 campaign against Scotland.

It will be a happy return for flanker McCann, the Ulster academy player who made his U20 debut off the bench at Musgrave Park in last season’s opening-round victory over England, a 35-27 thriller that set in motion an epic Grand Slam journey. Ireland may well be the nation with the target on their backs this time around but the 19-year-old skipper does not believe it is anything his team can’t handle.

“Definitely not,” McCann said during a four-day training camp at the Fota Island Resort in Cork.

That’s come and gone. It’s a fresh start with mostly new boys. I think everyone is just looking forward to getting into it. Defending it, yeah you have a bit of that in your mind, but nothing serious. It’s just get in there and play our own game.

McCann is one of only seven second-year campaigners in the 37-man squad named by McNamara on Monday but though their experience is a valued commodity, the captain insists leadership is a shared responsibility.

“I think just the way Noel drives everyone, he expects everyone to be up there. He knows that within the leadership group — which has three people returning and four who are new to 20s — Noel expects them to drive the standards.

“You can tell the boys who have been here before, they know how it works, and make the others feel at ease.

“That core group of lads with a bit of experience helps everyone else adjust and adapt.”

McCann spoke of the “great honour” of being handed the captaincy.

“Growing up and watching the 20s captains, that’s something you desire to be. It is a great honour.

“Everyone’s supportive and everyone knows how we’re building and how we want to get to where we want to get to. There’s not much pressure on anyone individually. It’s just a group that works well.”

What is encouraging for Ireland supporters is that McCann sees many similarities between the 2020 squad and the previous year’s Grand Slam collective, “in the way we train and work”.

Yet he added: “At the same time there’s a lot of different dynamics. There’s definitely the same level of drive and ambition. Playing in Corsica last year with the U19s, it’s a similar group to what we have now and you can see the bond is there.

“But it’s still building. Last year it took a full year. That’s just how it works. It takes time, you can’t force these things. When it comes together, you know, and that’s when you start playing your best rugby on the pitch.”

McNamara identified what he calls the zero-talent efforts in players he believes are fundamental to success, the pillars of hard work, diligence, and teamwork. McCann sees those in abundance.

“It’s definitely a major thing for us because it’s something that doesn’t require any rugby ability.

“It’s hard work, thinking about your role. The simple things that anyone should be able to do. Once you add that to a talented group that we have, that’s when we really start playing.”