Megan Joyce in France.
Ireland Under-20 succumbed to the might of the All Blacks 31-26 in their final group stage of the IRB World Championship in front of an electric crowd in Vannes.
A bruising battle witnessed scores from Thomas Farrell, Daniel Leavy and Edward Byrne with Rory Scannell contributing with the boot to put Mike Ruddock’s young troops within five points of an historic win.
A ferocious contest at the break down dominated the opening minutes with both sides looking to settle early nerves. It was the Irish who struck first through a penalty conversion from Scannell following an infringement at the ruck.
Ballynahinch’s John Donnan was subsequently penalised for disrupting a player attempting to gather from the re-start as New Zealand’s out-half Simon Hickey sent his penalty attempt shy of the posts.
A succession of penalties infiltrated the following minutes with Hickey capitalising on Irish errors and sending his team three points clear. Scannell then stepped up to level the scores at 6 apiece through an impressive penalty conversion.
However, it wasn’t long before the attacking threat of the All Blacks penetrated Ireland’s defensive line. Second-row Patrick Tuipulotu soon crossed the white wash after forward and back inter-changes stretched the Irish from right to left.
Ireland valiantly reacted to New Zealand’s first try-scoring blow through centre Farrell, who, after diving on loose ball turned on the after burners to charge over for the try and raise the Irish fans from their seats.
An equal score-line remained until further disciplinary caution for Ireland eventually resulted in Hickie pushing the Kiwis ahead by three. The Irish were then rocked by try-scoring Farrell seeing yellow, who fell guilty to warnings of persistent off-side offences before a half-time round up of 14-11.
The opening of the second half saw New Zealand capitalise on their number advantage running in three tries in the space of fifteen minutes. Impressive centre Michael Collins found Epalahame Faiva for the first in the left corner with Hickie narrowly missing the conversion.
The second came through wing Lolagi Visina who used his power and pace to fly over after receiving quality ball from a well structured set-piece line-out, as Hickie sliced the posts. Faiva soon sent the All Black crowd into celebration with his second try which came through further forward momentum from the line-out.
Irish Captain Luke McGrath then rallied his troops to great effect as young Ireland began to build a courageous come-back. Successful movement between forwards and backs eventually resulted in Daniel Leavy going over for the score after Rory Scholes released the Leinster man in the left corner.
Replacement front-row Edward Byrne soon set Irish hearts racing through Ireland’s third try, crashing over the line after solid construction of phases with Scannell adding the extras. Minutes later, Scannell boosted the Irish score by a further three through a successful penalty conversion.
The closing stages saw Irish penalties reversed as a result of careless play. Darragh Leader sent a boot deep into the stands following a penalty to give the Ireland one last attempt at historic glory.
However, once again, ill-discipline halted progression in New Zealand’s 22 with the All Black’s lofting the ball into the crowd to shatter Irish dreams of a quarter-final place.
Ireland now face France in their attempt to match last season’s fifth place finish.
Ireland U20s Lineup: Darragh Leader (Galwegians/Connacht); Adam Byrne (UCD/Leinster), Thomas Farrell (Lansdowne/Leinster), Rory Scannell (Dolphin/Munster), Rory Scholes (Belfast Harlequins/Ulster); Steve Crosbie (Old Belvedere/Leinster), Luke McGrath (UCD/Leinster) (capt); Peter Dooley (Lansdowne/Leinster), George McGuigan (Newcastle Falcons/Exile), Christopher Taylor (Malone/Ulster), Gavin Thornbury (UCD/Leinster), John Donnan (Ballynahinch/Ulster), Daniel Leavy (UCD/Leinster), Josh van der Flier (UCD/Leinster), Conor Joyce (Malone/Ulster).
Replacements used: Darren Sweetnam (UCC/Munster) for A Byrne (33 mins), Bryan Byrne (UCD/Leinster) for McGuigan, Edward Byrne (UCD/Leinster) for Dooley, Peadar Timmins (UCD/Leinster) for Thornbury (all 49 mins), Mark Roche (Lansdowne/Connacht) for Crosbie, Ryan Murphy (Dolphin/Munster) for Joyce (both 67), David Shanahan (Clontarf/Leinster) for McGrath (76), Adam Boland (Lansdowne/Connacht) for Taylor (79).
Mike Ruddock’s men came close to dismantling the junior world rugby superpower. This in itself proves the worth of this young Irish outfit and also testifies their resilience. When faced with a backlash of tries in the second-half, many sides would have crumbled. However, an inner confidence in their ability as a coherent unit, gained through their impressive overturns of both Australia and Fiji, spurred them on to test the All Blacks until the final curtain call.
The yellow card shown to Farrell was the clear game turner and swung momentum into Kiwi hands, momentum which was unfortunately never regained. Even with their steady and valiant come-back, New Zealand slowly capitalised on Ireland’s ill-discipline, as a succession of penalties either handed possession or points to the heavy-weights.
Ireland’s scrum and line-out was most impressive throughout the game and pushed the All Blacks back on a number of occasions, rising to the significant challenge presented to them. Although at times the Irish looked desperate in defence they stood tall in a ruck area dominated by first class opposition.
The Southern Hemisphere giants did appear, at times, beatable. The final ten minutes possessed an air of Irish hope and expectancy as the side produced phases and running lines just short of an upset.
An enthralling game which truly showcased the best of the both teams, with the Irish within touching distance of rugby euphoria. The Ulster contingent of Scholes, Joyce, Donnan and Taylor did their province proud. The squad can now hold their heads high as they look towards their encounter with the French in the play offs.