Allen Clarke’s Ireland side gave New Zealand their first real test at Under-20 level for some time, going down 17-0 to the defending champions in a hard-fought IRB TOSHIBA Junior World Championship pool encounter in Nagoya, Japan.
Only 3-0 behind at half-time and with New Zealand full-back Rob Robinson in the sin-bin, the Ireland Under-20s were eyeing up one of the biggest upsets in age grade tournament history.
Unfortunately, Ireland could not transfer their effectiveness in defence into attack and missing a couple of noteworthy try-scoring chances, two of which saw centre Nevin Spence go desperately close to crossing the whitewash, they ended up losing 17-0 to the Baby Blacks.
But this was a serious wake-up call for New Zealand and their coach Dave Rennie. Often at this level, the sheer size of the New Zealand players, their pace and the reputations they carry with them can see opponents left awestruck.
Ireland were beaten 65-10 by Rennie’s side at last year’s tournament in Wales and they managed to put 38 points on England in a one-sided final.
However, Ireland’s class of 2009, led by stand-in captain Ciaran Ruddock, clearly relished the challenge posed by the champions and right from the haka, the men in green were in their faces.
Certainly the 17-0 scoreline was not a true reflection on a very physical 80 minutes in which neither side backed down.
New Zealand were marginally the more clinical and their brace of second half tries – the second when Spence was in the sin-bin – was enough to maintain their winning run in Japan.
After watching his side come within a whisker of scoring a late try, Ireland coach Allen Clarke said: “Obviously there is a lot of disappointment in our changing room. It was a pretty valiant effort from us.
“We created a lot of opportunities. We took New Zealand to a world that they haven’t been in in this Championship in a long time, certainly last year they breezed through it.
“There is a lot of frustration that we didn’t execute some of the chances we created.
“Having said that we are extremely proud of our work rate and our effort, I think we gave everybody a game that maybe this Championship has been waiting for.”
The other teams will certainly sit up and take notice of how close Ireland ran the Baby Blacks, whose smallest winning margin at the 2008 tournament was 25 points.
After beating Argentina 17-9 in their opening game, Clarke’s charges will hope to notch a bonus point win against Uruguay in their final pool game on Saturday.
The Irish are currently third in Pool A, two points behind Argentina, but the Pumitas have to face New Zealand in their final game knowing that Ireland are poised to take advantage if they slip up.
Although he enjoyed captaining the side in the absence of the suspended Peter O’Mahony, second row Ciaran Ruddock said: “We’re disappointed to come away second best, we didn’t come here to this Championship to just give teams a game – we came here with a goal of winning it.
“We made some mistakes out there tonight and we’re going to have to look at them and see where we can improve. Our aim now is just to go on from this and learn from those mistakes.”
Praising Ireland for providing his players with a hugely competitive game, New Zealand boss Dave Rennie said: “We’re a little bit disappointed, we just made too many errors tonight that put ourselves under a lot of pressure and so we had to really scrap and to Ireland’s credit they are a very well organised team and made us fight hard all the way.
“Maybe in the long run it will be good for us, but certainly (it was) a tough game and we’re happy to get out with four points.”
New Zealand captain Aaron Cruden added: “The Irish defended really well and sort of applied pressure and didn’t really let us get into our game-plan that we wanted to play against them so full credit to them.
“We’re disappointed but I suppose a positive that you can take out of it is that we won such a physical and hard game and we didn’t really play any footy.”