Ireland Under-20 Men’s captain Evan O’Connell said their focus never wavered despite France taking an early second half lead and twice drawing level during the final quarter of Saturday’s U-20 Six Nations opener.
The Ireland U-20s (sponsored by PwC) showed their mettle, finishing both halves strongly to overcome France 37-31 in a hostile atmosphere in Aix-en-Provence. Debutant out-half Jack Murphy starred with 17 points from the tee, including two crucial late penalties.
Murphy converted tries from Danny Sheahan, Brian Gleeson, player-of-the-match Hugh Gavin, and Finn Treacy, his former Pres Bray class-mate. It was a record U-20 Six Nations win for Ireland on French soil.
The only other Ireland U-20 team to score as many points and tries against France were the class of 2015, who won 37-20 at Dubarry Park when future senior internationals, Garry Ringrose, Ross Byrne, Joey Carbery, Jeremy Loughman, and Nick Timoney, were involved.
Giving his reaction in the aftermath, second row O’Connell said: “It’s amazing. That game was so tough, we were going score for score. They came back into it really strongly in that second half. Just delighted to get over the line in the end.
“We speak a lot about being ‘next job’ focused, next job no matter what happened previously. So we just kept moving forward, kept moving forward playing our game and we got the result, one we’re delighted with.”
O’Connell teamed up at lock with the 6ft 10in Alan Spicer, who is just 18, and would have been pleased with a set-piece return of 10 lineouts won, two lost, and two steals, along with a 100% return on Ireland’s own scrum feed, albeit with obvious room for improvement.
Spicer was one of 16 Irish debutants on the night, nine of whom were forwards, and Ireland’s new U-20 skipper knew they could count on the new players to step up to the mark and go toe-to-toe with a French pack led by World Championship winner Mathis Castro-Ferreira.
“Of course we had to (offer guidance to the new players). But you see the quality of players we have in our team, there’s not a lot you have to do for them.
“They showed up week in, week out, training the last couple of weeks, and they showed up out there on the pitch, so I can’t say I’m any prouder of the lads than I am today,” he told Virgin Media Sport.
Meanwhile, try-scoring centre Gavin said the Ireland squad’s rate of progression has been rapid to get to the point where they are beating the reigning World champions in front of a partisan French crowd.
There were some mixed results before the tournament with Richie Murphy’s charges edging out Italy 35-29 – the Azzurrini are their second round opponents in Cork next Friday – and there was a defeat to the Munster Development team, along with a comeback draw with the Leinster Development XV.
However, they put it altogether on the U-20 Six Nations’ opening weekend, producing a stellar collective performance with Salthill native Gavin a standout player in both defence and attack.
The Connacht Academy player combined to very good effect with new centre partner Wilhelm de Klerk, thwarting a number of French attacks. His clever break from deep almost created a first half try, and he timed his run to perfection to score from Oliver Coffey’s pass in the 51st minute.
Gavin, who made 100 metres from 14 carries, and landed nine tackles, said: “The progression of this team has been unbelievable. From the start when we came in to now is just night and day.
“Credit to the coaching, they’ve done a lot but the adaptability of the lads as well has been unbelievable. We knew coming into the game, Aix-en-Provence, they have quite a hostile crowd.
“They fill the crowd and they get loud. Coming into the game we were just talking about not letting that affect us, stay in every moment and just enjoy the game really.”
Having been part of last year’s U-20 Six Nations Grand Slam success and helped the team to reach the World Rugby U-20 Championship final, Gavin experienced plenty of highs with last season’s Ireland U-20s.
Beating France and England in Cork were obvious highlights, along with getting the better of both Australia and World Championship hosts South Africa in the summer, but the recently-turned 20-year-old said last night’s win was probably the best of the lot.
“We’ve had a few good ones in fairness, but I think this one really topped it off. Up until the 71st minute, we didn’t know what would happen, it could go either way, and then in fairness to everyone, we dug really, really deep, and thankfully we got the win,” he added.
The Ireland Under-20s continue their U-20 Six Nations campaign against Italy next Friday (kick-off 7.15pm), in the first of back-to-back home games at Virgin Media Park. Tickets are available to buy here from Ticketmaster.ie.