At the end of a topsy-turvy encounter that mixed the good with the bad, the Ireland Under-20s shared the spoils with England in a 34-all draw in Paarl.
Saturday, June 24 -
ENGLAND UNDER-20s 34 IRELAND UNDER-20s 34, Paarl Gymnasium, Paarl
Scorers: England: Tries: Asher Opoku-Fordjour, Penalty try, Jacob Cusick 2; Cons: Connor Slevin 3, Pen try con; Pens: Connor Slevin 2
Ireland: Tries: Sam Prendergast, George Hadden, James McNabney, Ruadhan Quinn, Henry McErlean, Hugh Cooney; Cons: Sam Prendergast 2
HT: England 10 Ireland 15
Having led 15-10 at half-time, trailed by nine points and then rallied superbly to move 34-24 ahead with 14 minutes remaining, Richie Murphy's side were frustrated to miss out on a winning start to the World Rugby U-20 Championship.
However, with try-scoring centre Hugh Cooney sent off for a high tackle late on, Ireland will take plenty of encouragement from their six-try haul and a dogged defensive stand which prevented England from snatching victory at the death.
Unconverted tries from Sam Prendergast, George Hadden and James McNabney gave Ireland the edge at the break, although Prendergast endured a difficult day with the boot as he missed four conversions.
His half-back partner Fintan Gunne was heavily involved throughout, earning the Mastercard player-of-the-match award, but Diarmuid Mangan's sin-binning was punished with two English tries, the first one a penalty try.
Despite England replacement Jacob Cusick crossing from a pacy counter attack, Ireland regrouped impressively and Gunne's inch-perfect cross-field kick played in Ruadhan Quinn for a timely bonus point try.
The U-20 Six Nations Grand Slam champions entered the final quarter with a 24-20 buffer, as England flanker Greg Fisilau saw yellow and Prendergast put Henry McErlean over and promptly added the extras from close range.
The win looked to be within Ireland's grasp when deft offloads from Paddy McCarthy and the fast-breaking John Devine released Cooney to finish off to the right of the posts.
Crucially, England's debutant out-half Connor Slevin swiftly hit back with a penalty and then nailed the touchline conversion of Cusick's second score as Irish errors - particularly in the lineout - were ruthlessly punished.
Yet, neither team could muster a knockout blow during a frantic final 10 minutes, leaving mixed emotions for both at the final whistle. Ireland will face Australia, who were 46-37 winners over Fiji, at the same venue on Thursday (kick-off 11am local time/10am Irish time).
England were quicker out of the blocks, profiting from Prendergast's kick-off which did not make 10 metres and a couple of subsequent penalties. An offside call against Hadden allowed Slevin to open the scoring in the third minute.
Strong running from McErlean and Quinn got Ireland on the move. The forwards carried up closer before Prendergast dummied and used his strength to reach over past Chandler Cunningham-South and Fisilau, making it 5-3.
Despite falling foul of referee Luc Ramos' whistle at the breakdown, Ireland broke up a promising English spell with Prendergast and captain Gus McCarthy getting their reward in the form of a clearing penalty.
Carrying more threat out wide, a smart attack gave wingers Hugh Gavin and Andrew Osborne a chance to stretch their legs, the latter just denied by Joe Jenkins' cover tackle in the right corner.
Murphy's youngsters kept the pressure on courtesy of a crooked English lineout and a close-in penalty. Evan O'Connell was held up over the line but, following a tap penalty, Hadden barged over powerfully off Gunne's reverse pass.
Prendergast pulled the conversion wide, though, and England were level at 10-all just a couple of minutes later. Prop Asher Opoku-Fordjour bulldozed his way in under the posts - getting past three defenders - for Slevin to convert.
The remaining 16 minutes of the first half were just as fiercely contested, albeit with some unforced errors. Osborne got back to bring down Jenkins as England threatened a breakaway score. A further choke tackle cleared the danger.
Hooker McCarthy gobbled up two loose English lineouts at the rear, the first of them seeing him combine with Mangan on a rampaging break. The second one led indirectly to an unconverted try on the stroke of half-time.
Ireland chipped away from a scrum inside the English 22, drawing a penalty which was tapped and a few phases later, McNabney had his skipper on the latch as he drove over to the left of the posts.
Nonetheless, England evened up the try count during a testing third quarter for McCarthy and his team-mates. They had a couple of sloppy exits, along with a backpedalling scrum and Mangan's yellow for infringing close tohis own try-line.
Another big shove at scrum time led to England's penalty try, and Joseph Woodward and Slevin countered brilliantly from deep to put the wheels in motion for Cusick's 52nd-minute effort, which Slevin converted.
Ireland's 24-15 deficit did not last long, though, as they were able to pull England infield off a scrum before Gunne's pinpoint kick found Quinn out wide for a try that his industrious display deserved.
John Devine soon cut through the English defence on a nice line, with Fisilau sin-binned for making contact with the centre's head. Hooker McCarthy was stopped short from a surging maul before quick hands from Devine and Prendergast sent McErlean over beside the posts.
Prendergast's conversion nudged Ireland's lead out to three points (27-24), and some more crisp handling - this time from tighthead McCarthy and Devine from the edge of the English 22 - unleashed Cooney for try number six.
The momentum swung again when an offside decision allowed Slevin to kick his second penalty, leaving a converted try in it. A mistimed Irish lineout also paved the way for England to bag their bonus point try.
Nathan Jibulu claimed possession at the back and went close to scoring before Ireland were caught narrow in defence, allowing replacement Cusick to complete his brace in the muddy left corner.
Slevin's well-struck conversion made it all-square and that is how it finished. Ireland failed to profit from an advanced scrum position, but they survived Cooney's 75th-minute dismissal despite England ending the game deep inside the Irish 22.
ENGLAND U-20: Sam Harris (Bath); Tobias Elliott (Saracens), Rekeiti Ma'asi-White (Sale Sharks), Joseph Woodward (Leicester Tigers), Joe Jenkins (Bristol Bears); Connor Slevin (Harlequins), Charlie Bracken (Saracens); Asher Opoku-Fordjour (Sale Sharks), Finn Theobald-Thomas (Gloucester), Afolabi Fasogbon (Unattached), Harvey Cuckson (Bath), Lewis Chessum (Leicester Tigers) (capt), Finn Carnduff (Leicester Tigers), Greg Fisilau (Exeter Chiefs), Chandler Cunningham-South (Harlequins).
Replacements used: Nathan Jibulu (Harlequins) for Theobald-Thomas (46 mins), Jacob Cusick (Leicester Tigers) for Jenkins (48), Nathan Michelow (Saracens) for Cuckson (60), Louie Johnson (Newcastle Falcons) for Harris (66), Archie McArthur (Gloucester) for Opoku-Fordjour, James Halliwell (Bristol Bears) for Fasogbon (both 68), Nye Thomas (Sale Sharks) for Bracken, Tristan Woodman (Sale Sharks) for Cunningham-South (both 73).
IRELAND U-20: Henry McErlean (Terenure College RFC/Leinster); Andrew Osborne (Naas RFC/Leinster), Hugh Cooney (Clontarf FC/Leinster), John Devine (Galway Corinthians RFC/Connacht), Hugh Gavin (Galwegians RFC/Connacht); Sam Prendergast (Lansdowne FC/Leinster), Fintan Gunne (Terenure College RFC/Leinster); George Hadden (Clontarf FC/Leinster), Gus McCarthy (UCD RFC/Leinster) (capt), Paddy McCarthy (Dublin University FC/Leinster), Evan O'Connell (UL Bohemian RFC/Munster), Conor O'Tighearnaigh (UCD RFC/Leinster), Diarmuid Mangan (UCD RFC/Leinster), Ruadhan Quinn (Old Crescent RFC/Munster), James McNabney (Ballymena RFC/Ulster).
Replacements used: George Morris (Lansdowne FC/Leinster) for Hadden (half-time), Charlie Irvine (Queen's University Belfast RFC/Ulster) for O'Connell (55 mins), Brian Gleeson (Garryowen FC/Munster) for Quinn (60), James Nicholson (UCD RFC/Leinster) for Osborne, Fiachna Barrett (Galway Corinthians RFC/Connacht) for P McCarthy (both 71). Not used: Max Clein (Garryowen FC/Munster), Oscar Cawley (Naas RFC/Leinster), Matty Lynch (Dublin University FC/Leinster).
Referee: Luc Ramos (France)