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Van der Flier's vintage still the closest Ireland U20s have come to beating the 'Baby Blacks'

Rory Scannell and Rory Scholes also had a big part to play in a 2013 comeback that fell just short.

Image: Gwénaël Mahé/INPHO

IRELAND’S YOUNG RUGBY stars got off to a terrific start in the World Rugby U20 Championship this week coming from 17 points down to beat Grand Slam winners Wales.

However, there’s one big foreboding black cloud on the horizon. Tomorrow (13.30) Nigel Carolan’s Wolfpups go up against the always-formidable New Zealand.

The ‘Baby Blacks’ have been encountered five times by Ireland in this tournament since 2008 — all five were lost. The most recent two meetings at this grade have ended in 22-point defeats, and they were arguably improvements on the first two humbling outings.

In 2013 though, Mike Ruddock’s team gave the Baby Blacks their closest shave at Irish hands. Battering at the door of victory until the whistle blew for a 31 – 26 New Zealand win.

Source: World Rugby/YouTube

Now a senior Test international openside, Josh van der Flier (and his trademark red scrum cap) led the pack’s efforts and with Connacht’s Darragh Leader, Munster’s Rory Scannell, Ulster’s Rory Scholes and Leinster’s Luke McGrath back-line, Ireland were able to attack with a high tempo to stay in touch with the southern hemisphere’s best.

Ireland U20 v New Zealand U20, 2013

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)

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Replacements used: Darren Sweetnam (UCC/Munster), Bryan Byrne (UCD/Leinster), Edward Byrne (UCD/Leinster), Peadar Timmins (UCD/Leinster), Mark Roche (Lansdowne/Connacht), Ryan Murphy (Dolphin/Munster), David Shanahan (Clontarf/Leinster), Adam Boland (Lansdowne/Connacht).

Against New Zealand, there will always be a period when you have to hang in there and hope to make the most of any error, any scraps thrown your way. Centre Thomas Farrell got his foot to a loose pass in the first half and broke clear to ground an intercept try that ensured Ireland were well in touch at 11 – 11 with the halfway mark in sight.

However, the Kiwis made hay while Farrell was in the sin-bin after a yellow card on the stroke of half-time. And after the restart they tagged on two tries with the centre still cooling off. First, Highlanders’ Jason Emery made the most of the open space before Scarlets’ Michael Collins sent hooker Epalahame Faiva in.

Auckland Blues’ Lolagi Visinia underlined the Baby Black advantage with a tackle-busting run to the line and Faiva completed his double off a short line-out.

Three tries conceded in the same left corner in the space of nine minutes. Ireland looked well and truly burned off with the scoreboard suddenly showing a chasm at 31 – 11.

Yet back they came.

Rory Scannell Rory Scannell on the attack. Source: Gwénaël Mahé/INPHO

An excellent 58th minute attack started by Scannell’s pass and Farrell’s break laid the platform for a fluid move finished by Leavy after Scholes had fixed the last defender to feed his blindside.

Ireland felt the force of momentum in their favour after that and with Steve Crosbie probing for openings, replacement prop Ed Byrne had the power to get within touching distance of the line.

Ed Byrne stretches to score a try The long arm of Ed Byrne. Source: Gwénaël Mahé/INPHO

Scannell added the conversion and then a penalty to bring Ireland within five points of a New Zealand side down to 14 men for the final 10 minutes.

But the brilliant Hurricanes back row Ardie Savea helped the black wall to stand firm despite Ireland’s effort to crank up the pressure. And having started his day with a try, All Black and Blues lock Patrick Tuipulotu settled the outcome by forcing a timely penalty inside his own 22 on the last play of the game.

Ireland and New Zealand players at the end of the game Source: Michel Renac/INPHO

Coming within 20 metres of the winning line, it was unquestionably the best of the bunch of Ireland’s efforts against New Zealand at age grade.

The first clash in the 2008 tournament saw the villain of the senior Test in November 2013, Ryan Crotty, get his first taste of tormenting Ireland as he routinely punched holes in the defensive line and helped the Baby Blacks – who had Connacht’s Ulster-bound prop Rodney Ah You, Zac Guildford, Sean Maitland and Quentin MacDonald in their ranks — run in six tries in a 65 – 10 win.

Ireland’s backline that day contained Ian Madigan, Eamon Sheridan, Eoin O’Malley and Niall Morris, who were unable to put up much of a resistance to the eventual champions, trailing 45 -3 before Lansdowne number eight Patrick Mallon forced his way over.

Big names

In 2009, Ireland went to Japan with Conor Murray watching from the bench as Connacht wing Matt Healy played scrum-half. Ian Madigan was shifted to fullback to allow Ian McKinley pull the strings and Dave Kearney was outside the late Nevin Spence who played outside centre.

A host of big names certainly left the the young New Zealanders frustrated, but in a game full of missed penalties, Ireland were unable to register a point and Aaron Cruden’s side eventually pulled clear to a 17 – 0 win.

The four-year gap between meetings with the southern hemisphere powerhouse seemed to do wonders for confidence in the class off 2013. But some more recent crops have acquitted themselves relatively well too — albeit en route to those 22-point losses.

Two years ago, an excellent Irish group including current Leinster regulars Garry Ringrose, Peter Dooley and Ross Molony forced their way to a 21 – 23 half-time advantage in the third place play-off.

However, the Kiwi side – featuring current Super Rugby livewire Damian McKenzie, Blues wing Tevita Li and Crusaders’ Richie Mo’Unga – roared back in their final 40 minutes of the tournament. Li and Mo’Unga both scored twice to well and truly cancel out two hard-won tries and Ross Byrne’s three penalties.

Only Jacob Stockdale, Andrew Porter and Adam McBurney return as older, wiser men after last year’s contest when Kiwi-born Clontarf tyro Joey Carbery notched Ireland’s only score in a 25 -3 loss.

Viewed as a whole, the graph shows an improvement in green fortunes over the years. The 2016 vintage look in great shape after their thrilling win over Wales, but can they go one better than 2013 and cause another, far bigger upset in their second fixture?

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Sean Farrell

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