IT WAS NEVER straightforward, these high-octane tussles never are. But this Ireland U20 squad once again showed off their uncanny knack of finding a way – however improbable – to win.
Craig Casey makes a burst in Santa Fe. Source: Pablo Gasparini/INPHO
Beating England in today’s World Rugby U20 Championship opener in Argentinian outpost Santa Fe was not in the script for this tournament’s 11th seed. But fuelled with the confidence of a win over the same opponent in February as the first step on their way to a Grand Slam, Noel McNamara’s men refused to let England’s hard-won momentum count.
Despite trailing 0-10 and then 14-21 against a powerful opponent showcasing an array of handling skills, Ireland continuously grafted and grappled their way to back into contention.
In all, Ireland scored six tries, two from Ulster blindside David McCann on the back of crucial second-half mauls. Ben Healy, on as a replacement, notched invaluable touchline conversions of those scores while the game was firmly in the balance.
The Garryowen man also grounded a try in the wake of a red card for England’s Alfie Barbeary to give himself a points tally of 11 points by the time England were reduced to 14 men for the finish.
England, finalists in this tournament for the last six years, didn’t spare the horses when the curtain was raised for the tournament. By sheer physicality, they forced Ireland into a scrappy early rhythm. The boot of Saracens’ Manu Vunipola made it 0-3 after three minutes and his hands played a telling role in slick the build-up to Ollie Sleigholme’s try that made it 0-10 with 10 on the clock.
But Noel McNamara’s men don’t shirk setbacks like that. Charlie Ryan played a captain’s role in earning Ireland a foothold. First the towering UCD man charged down Ollie Fox’s attempted box kick. And although he was wrestled to touch, the lock then stole the resulting line-out and set up a siege finished by Flannery.
Even with Vunipola withdrawn for a HIA, England steadied the ship well after the momentum shift. Indeed, the out-half’s first task on his return was to extend his side’s lead with another nicely struck penalty.
However, Ireland’s industry without the ball paid dividends again in the 26th minute.
England found themselves pinned to their own line after a strong chase by Jonathan Wren and Angus Kernohan. Stewart Moore then showed his awareness of the Law book by diving at the base of the English ruck and onto the ball to score a try akin to Cian Healy’s against France this year and Conor Murray’s notch against Toulon in 2018.
Flannery took aim at the posts and split them with a glorious effort from the touchline to give Ireland an unlikely lead. It could have been even better than 14-13 at the interval, but the Six Nations champions were not able to turn the screw after Ollie Hinckley’s sin-bin for a high shot as Kernohan claimed a mark in his own 22.
Ryan Baird on the gallop. Source: Pablo Gasparini/INPHO
The opening of the second half proved just as rough as the first for Ireland and a string of penalties ensured it was England who got into the ascendancy with another Vunipola penalty followed swiftly by a second try from Sleightholme, finishing off a nicely-judged cross-field kick from centre Fraser Dingwall.
The best was yet to come from England’s attack as Tom Seabrook raced into the left corner on the back of a sweeping move with excellent passing through England’s midfield.
The trouble was, every time they showed a flicker of panache, Ireland went back and punched them in the mouth.
Either side of that fantastic Seabrook try, Ireland kicked to the corner and the maul yielded tries for McCann in the 50th and 59th minute.
England’s frustration was understandable given the leads they were flittering away again and again. But there was no escaping with ‘mitigating circumstances’ for replacement hooker Alfie Barbeary. In a moment of utter madness, Barbeary powered up through a static Hodnett as both men stood on the blind side of a ruck. The Corkman was sent crashing to the turf and was lucky to escape injury as he landed on his back before Barbeary was rightly awarded a red card.
Hodnett and Josh Wycherley celebrate post-match. Source: Pablo Gasparini/INPHO
Ireland capitalised immediately, with Healy skating around covering tacklers to dot down in the corner and the replacement was once again on target with a brilliant conversion.
And a rollercoaster that turned into a rout was complete when Hodnett muscled his way over with five minutes remaining.
A bonus-point win with 16 points to spare, this was a grand day indeed for McNamara’s Grand Slam champs.
Tries: J Flannery, S Moore, D McCann (2) B Healy, J Hodnett
Conversions: J Flannery (2/2) B Healy (3/4)
Tries: O Sleightholme (2) T Seabrook
Conversions: M Vunipola (1/2) T DeGlanville (0/1)
Penalties: M Vunipola (3/3)
Ireland: Iwan Hughes (Ben Healy ’50), Angus Kernohan, Liam Turner, Stewart Moore (Sean French ’49), Jonathan Wren, Jake Flannery, Craig Casey: Josh Wycherley (Michael Milne ’67), Dylan Tierney-Martin (Declan Adamson ’73), Thomas Clarkson (Charlie Ward ’78),Charlie Ryan, Ryan Baird (Niall Murray ’75), David McCann, John Hodnett Azur Allison (Ronan Watters ’26)
England: Tom de Glanville (Josh Hodge ’61), Ollie Sleightholme, Fraser Dingwall, Cameron Redpath, Tom Seabrook, Manu Vunipola (Josh Hodge ’17 HIA), Ollie Fox
Olly Adkins (Kai Owen ’66), Nic Dolly (Alfie Barbeary ’61), Joe Heyes (Alfie Petch ’61), Joel Kpoku, Alex Coles (Nic Dolly ’66), Ted Hill, Aaron Hinkley, Tom Willis.
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