HE was one of the coolest players in Musgrave Park as the two teams came on to the field for Ireland’s second round under 20 Six Nations game against Italy on Friday.
Carlow rugby player, Stephen Smyth, confessed as much and revealed this would normally not be his style.
“I think, funnily enough, I was the calmest as I have ever been. Even playing for my club, Old Wesley, and Carlow before, I would be up the wall with nerves. In fairness, for some weird reason, I was the calmest I have ever been,” he said afterwards.
It was a game Ireland were confidently expected to win but it took a late try from substitute, Sean Edogbo, to steal a 23-22 victory from right under the noses of Italy who were devastated to lose in such a manner.
Having captained Ireland at under 19 level and leading Leinster to an under 18 interprovincial title, the route to under 20 rugby looked assured for Smyth but he didn’t make the panel when Ireland travelled and beat France away from home the previous week.
When the team to play Italy was announced, Smyth was in. He accepts the fight for places is keen.
“It has been a long journey. Unfortunately I didn’t get picked last week but there are two absolutely excellent hookers in the side. Competition is tough. I was happy to get my chance this week,” the rookie under 20 international player said.
After 51 minutes in Musgrave Park on Friday, his job was done. Smyth left the field as Ireland made three changes. Such is the way in rugby now where players give their all and then leave where fresh legs and minds take over.
Those on the bench had to sit and watch as Italy scored an unconverted try on 73 minutes. Smyth couldn’t believe it. Was Ireland’s hopes of a Grand Slam going be dashed at home at the hands of the competition’s outsiders?
“It was pure fear. In Musgrave Park, they (Ireland under 20s) have never lost a game. I would have hated to have been the first,” said the Old Wesley player who was capped at underage level while in school in Kilkenny College.
Home crowds can sometimes go silent when the away teams go ahead. This time, the supporters made one last effort to lift the morale of the Irish players. Smyth says he was at the coal-face of the support.
“I would appreciate it all the more as I was in the stand hearing them belting out the Fields of Athenry. You can understand when the senior players talk about it. It is something special.”
All of Stephen’s family travelled to Cork to support the under 20 debutant. After the game the players came to the side of the pitch to meet family and friends. Stephen’s father, Alan, was thrilled for his oldest son. They live in Ballinabranna.
“It means the world. He put the world of work into it. Up and down to Dublin. He just works so hard,” he said.
“It is great for Carlow. It is great for the family. It is great for him. It is great for the school where he has played his rugby (Kilkenny College). It is great for everybody. He captained Ireland under 19 and captained Leinster to win the under 18 interprovincial championships. He has always been there. He always plays his best and leads from the top.”
Stephen’s mother, Suzanne, was present with her husband. They were accompanied by their other three sons, Andrew, Ben and Noah.
“We are just so proud of him. The whole family. We are all so proud,” Suzanne articulated.
Derek Cope, former President of Carlow Rugby Club explained that Stephen would have learned his early rugby with the club.
“He played minis and u13 youths before he went to Kilkenny college.
He also regularly trained with us last season while in sixth year. He was hoping to play with us when his schools cup was finished but couldn’t because of his representative commitments. However he did come off the bench in the South East final in the last game of the season and after that he moved to Old Wesley to fulfil his academy contract.
“He’s a really top lad and is often in at our games,” added Derek.