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Second-half fightback sees Ireland come close but they begin with defeat in Bordeaux

The hosts ultimately proved too hot to handle as Noel McNamara’s men found form in the second 40.

Image: Bryan Keane/INPHO

France U20s 34
Ireland U20s 24

NOEL MCNAMARA’S IRELAND began their U20s Six Nations campaign in defeat, but an extraordinary second half in Bordeaux offered positives aplenty for the torunament’s remainder as they pushed France to the brink in unlikely circumstances.

The first half, however, was an absolute disaster.

Ireland already trailed by three from the boot of Romain Ntamack – son of the great Emile who won 46 caps for France between 1994 and 2000 – when further indiscipline on their behalf saw the French out-half march his side towards the Irish line.

And it was the gifted 10, too – playing in his second U20s championship only due to Matthieu Jalibert’s involvement with the senior side – who rubber-stamped France’s early advantage.

A stellar rearguard effort by Ireland, with Ronan Kelleher and Matthew Dalton in particular rebuffing the blue wave, would eventually be breached: a dog leg in the Irish defence – David McCarthy came up hard and Aaron Hall kept his line – saw Ntamack slide over, literally, from five yards – the greasy surface aiding his efforts from close range.

He split the posts with his conversion to move France into a 10-0 lead.

Ireland responded well, building phases and surviving a misplaced pass – which cost them a third of the pitch in yardage – to charge back into French territory. A needless offload by centre McCarthy put paid to their momentum as it found French mitts, but three points from the boot of Harry Byrne eventually put the visitors on the scoreboard.

France, though, were only getting started.

For all the talk of Daniel Brennan – son of former Ireland international Trevor (whose game incidentally ended on the half-hour mark due to an arm injury) – it was another Frenchman with an Irish-ish name, Killian Geraci, who set up France’s second: the towering lock claimed a lineout from the stratosphere before popping the ball to onrushing flanker Cameron Woki, who rounded the Irish defence to finish a well-rehearsed move.

Moments after the restart, that man Ntamack again was off to the races, scything through two would-be tacklers before taking off for the corner and his second try of the game. Having missed the extras following Woki’s score, he slotted the conversion for his own to extend France’s lead to 22-3.

Romain Ntamack celebrates scoring a try Romain Ntamack celebrates scoring his second try Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Thankfully for Noel McNamara’s stunned charges, it didn’t get any worse before the interval, but their response to two quickfire scores was fairly timid; by then, Ireland were losing the collision, and all but the impressive Munster 8 Jack O’Sullivan were struggling to make inroads. Even the UCC club man’s carries, though, were few and far between.

To McNamara’s credit as well as their own, Ireland began the second half in composed fashion. Replacement Sean Masterson produced a superb turnover with his side under the cosh, and while applying more width, Ireland began to gain a foothold in the French half.

On 50 minutes, the increasingly effective Harry Byrne – whose territorial kicking was near flawless throughout – prodded a beautifully-weighted kick beyond the French fullback. The oncoming Tommy O’Brien and Michael Silvester raced to dot the bouncing ball down, and though captain O’Brien got the final touch, Ireland were awarded a penalty try – as well as 10 minutes with an extra body – due to Silvester being taken out as he loomed large over the ball.

The resurgent Irish were back inside the French five-metre line just over a minute later on the back of a Byrne kick to touch after a collapsed maul, but from the resulting lineout maul, the home side drove them into touch with minimal fuss.

Les Bleus couldn’t escape their own 22, however. A lineout from Ireland in a similar position on 59 minutes saw the visitors once more form a maul before scrum-half Jonny Stewart channeled his inner-Stringer-versus-Biarritz and ghosted around its flank to touch down magnificently in the right-hand corner.

Byrne’s conversion from the touchline – the so-called bad side for a right-footed kicker – was utterly sublime, and with 20 minutes remaining, Ireland had reduced France’s advantage to five points.

Jonny Stewart celebrates scoring a try with teammates Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

France would operate with a fresh half-back partnership for the remainder, with Ntamack in particular receiving a hero’s acclaim as he strutted off the park to be replaced by Louis Carbonel on the 57-minute mark.

It didn’t impact them hugely. Not minutes after Carbonel had restarted proceedings France stretched their lead back out to 10 somewhat fortuitously: a probing kick caused ructions in the Irish defence and the TMO adjudged the oncoming man in blue not to have knocked the bobbling ball forward as it crossed the visitors’ line. Julien Gimbert was the eventual benefactor.

His try was promptly awarded, but Carbonel was off-target with his conversion attempt.

With French tails up, Peter Sullivan and substitute scrum-half Hugh O’Sullivan were forced to foil another assault in the same left-hand corner, with the former intervening upon a last-ditch offload as the latter put his weight behind an otherwise try-saving tackle.

The final 10 minutes saw an enthralling game descend – or perhaps ascend – to pure madness. With six remaining, Ireland – whose spirit never wavered – halved the deficit and then some.

Left wing James McCarthy put the finishing touches on a fine team move after a wonderful one-two with his fellow Munsterman and McCarthy, David.

Byrne, once more, did the rest with that metronomic right boot, and the scoreline suddenly read 27-24.

James McCarthy scores a try James McCarthy crosses for Ireland's third try. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

But the French weren’t to be denied on this occasion: having ferociously forced their way deep into Irish land with four minutes remaining, a colossal defensive effort from the men in green – which initially saw Killian Geraci held up over the line – would eventually give way to the game’s decisive score.

From the resulting five-metre scrum, France patiently chipped away at the Irish line, eventually bashing their way over via replacement prop Demba Bamba.

Carbonel’s kick was redundant as Ireland’s goose was already cooked, but he knocked it over anyway to see France out the gap at 34-24.

McNamara’s men were unfortunate not to escape with a losing bonus point and will take with them plenty of momentum from a second half in which they outscored their hosts by 21 points to 12, but a loss is a loss is a loss.

Ultimately, three crazy first-half minutes would gift France a lead which was unassailable if only just.

Ireland U20 v France

15. Michael Silvester (Dublin University/Leinster)
14. Peter Sullivan (Lansdowne FC/Leinster)
13. David McCarthy (Garryowen/Munster)
12. Tommy O’Brien (UCD RFC/Leinster) (captain)
11. James McCarthy (UL Bohemian/Munster)
10. Harry Byrne (UCD RFC/Leinster)
9. Jonny Stewart (Queen’s University RFC/Ulster)

1. Jordan Duggan (Naas/Leinster)
2. Ronan Kelleher (Lansdowne FC/ Leinster)
3. Jack Aungier (St. Mary’s College RFC/Leinster)
4. Cormac Daly (Clontarf FC/Leinster)
5. Jack Dunne (Dublin University FC/Leinster)
6. Matthew Dalton (Malone RFC/Ulster)
7. Aaron Hall (Ballynahinch RFC/Ulster)
8. Jack O’Sullivan (UCC RFC/Munster)

Replacements

16. Diarmuid Barron (Garryowen FC/Munster)
17. James French (UCC RFC/Munster)
18.Tom O’Toole (Banbridge RFC/Ulster)
19. Ronan Coffey (Shannon RFC/Munster)
20. Sean Masterson (Corinthians RFC/Connacht)
21. Hugh O’Sullivan (Clontarf FC/Leinster)
22. Angus Curtis (Queen’s University RFC/Ulster)
23. Angus Kernohan (Ballymena RFC/Ulster)

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