Mixed emotions for Irish U20s
By Daire Walsh
IT proved to be a week of mixed emotions for Ireland at the World Rugby U20 Championship in Santa Fe, Argentina.
Following the high of an opening day victory against arch rivals England on Tuesday, they suffered defeat to Australia in their second game of Pool B on Saturday. This makes tomorrow’s clash with Italy in the southern hemisphere a must-win for Noel McNamara’s side – if they are to progress to the last-four of the tournament.
Because it is only the three pool winners and the best runner-up that make it into the semi-finals, Ireland will most likely need to rely on results elsewhere before their placing is determined. When they completed a magnificent Grand Slam triumph in the spring, Athy’s Martin Moloney was a key figure in the Irish pack.
He was initially named in the squad for the World Championships, before injury unfortunately ruled him out of contention. He was joined on the treatment table by Leinster quartet Harry Byrne, David Hawkshaw, Brian Deeny and Scott Penny, as well as Munster’s Conor Phillips.
This led to a host of new combinations in the starting line-up for their pool opener and with England seeking revenge for their Six Nations defeat in Cork, it was always likely to be a stern test of Ireland’s mental resolve. They were placed under intense pressure during the early exchanges – England racing 10 points clear with a mere nine minutes gone on the clock.
However, Jake Flannery’s seven-point salvo subsequently got Ireland back on track. While a penalty from Saracens fly-half Manu Vunipola (cousin of club-mates Billy and Mako) gave England breathing space, Flannery converted a Stewart Moore try to give Ireland a 14-13 interval cushion.
This raised the stakes considerably and the contest continued to ebb and flow in the third-quarter. David McCann grabbed a brace of five-pointers in this period as Ireland once again turned the tables on England to lead 28-26.
When England’s replacement hooker Alfie Barbeary was red-carded on 66 minutes, it effectively opened the floodgates in the Argentinean city. Munster duo Ben Healy and John Hodnett crossed over to steer Ireland towards a deserved 42-26 success.
They had a short turnaround for the challenge of Australia, who recently halted New Zealand’s stranglehold on the Oceania Championship. There was Irish interest in both camps for this game with Louth native Michael McDonald named at scrum-half for the Junior Wallabies.
McDonald made the move Down Under at the age of 13 and is forging a strong reputation at this grade for Australia. Despite having Ryan Baird sent-off just 20 minutes into the game, Ireland led 17-10 on the hour mark.
Craig Casey and Moore dotted down for the Green Army, while Flannery and Healy were accurate off the kicking tee. It went awry for Ireland in the closing-quarter, though, as they leaked 35 unanswered points to their powerful opponents.
As things stand, Ireland are ranked sixth in the overall standings – just behind hosts Argentina.