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European Glory For Ireland Schools Team

European Glory For Ireland Schools Team

Ireland were crowned FIRA-AER Under-18 European champions for the first time following an excellent 17-8 victory for Terry McMaster’s well-drilled Schools team over England.

The Ireland side, sponsored by PwC, got on top in the opening half of Saturday's final in Tarbes, with Blackrock College winger Conor McEllin crossing for a 26th minute try.

Talismanic captain Luke McGrath was hugely influential again, distributing well and keeping the English defence on its toes. He kicked two early penalties, settling early nerves and the Irish were 11-3 ahead at half-time.

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England's heavier pack had an advantage in the scrum but Ireland were sharper in most other facets of the game.

Their decision-making, composure in possession and ability to take the right option time and again helped them maintain their lead in muggy, wet conditions at the Stade Maurice Trelut.

McGrath struck two more penalties to stretch the margin to 14 points and although English prop Alec Hepburn got over for a late unconverted try, nothing could take the gloss off what was an accomplished display from these young Irish players.

The victory avenged a 29-12 qualifier loss to England at Donnybrook back in December, and saw Terry McMaster's charges follow up on their terrific semi-final win over tournament hosts France.

It was Ireland's fourth time to reach the final (they lost to France in 2007, 2008 and last year), but this was the first year that the Schools team competed in the Championship instead of the Clubs XV.

Two well-struck penalties from McGrath had the Irish leading 6-0 after 11 minutes, his second effort a tremendous kick from just inside the English half.

McGrath and Stuart Olding combined well at half-back, the latter using both feet to find good touches and keep Ireland on the move. Centre Robert Henshaw was also prominent, putting in an early break.

From a quick turnover, McGrath scampered away and his offload was agonisingly knocked on by McEllin with the try-line at his mercy.

A shoulder injury for lock Jerry Sexton forced him off, bringing Luke Satchwell in the fray. He went straight in at flanker with the versatile Donagh Lawler moving into the second row.

Indiscipline at the breakdown saw England cough up yards and McGrath turned down a kickable penalty in favour of a lineout, five metres out.

The Irish pack, with twins Bryan and Edward Byrne carrying well, drove their way towards the line.

After a couple of phases, number 8 Ryan Murphy looked to have stretched over for a try past two England players. However, referee Arnaud Blondel ruled that he was just short and had lost the ball forward.

But Ireland got the try they deserved in the 26th minute. McGrath showed great control again at scrum half, willing his forwards on.

Prop Edward Byrne had a barnstorming run and replacement Jack Fitzpatrick, who came on while Rory Scholes was patched up, also threatened close to the English whitewash.

With Ireland moving the ball well, centre Chris Farrell did well to draw a tackle and pass for McEllin to twist his way over in the right corner, despite the presence of three defenders.

McGrath’s conversion attempt shaved the post and two minutes later, a ruck offence allowed Henry Slade left-foot England’s opening points from 40 metres out.

Coming up to half-time Ireland continued to take the game to England and tackle tigerishly, with Dan Leavy, Gavin Thornbury and the tireless Mark Roche getting through a huge amount of work.

11-3 down at the break, England enjoyed a good spell of possession early in the second half and committed tackling from Gordon Frayne and company kept them out of scoring range.

England fell foul of referee Blondel in the 45th minute. Leavy made a terrific break through the middle and Lawler was up on his shoulder to take contact and set up a ruck. Scott Spurling infringed, but McGrath missed the penalty from the left.

A couple of phases later, Anthony Watson was bundled as England got some continuity into their game and started to threaten out wide.

McGrath watched his long range penalty fall short of the posts in the 50th minute. However, he showed his worth again just moments later when he caught Jack Clifford off the back of a scrum and won a turnover for Ireland.

Farrell from Campbell College was used on a number of crash ball runs, forcing England to commit to the tackle and giving McGrath a platform from rucks.

Frustration was creeping into England's game as the minutes ticked by and Ireland were now dominanting territorially, pinning the pre-match favourites back in their own half.

A deliberate knock on from English captain Dominic Barrow gave the Irish a penalty inside the 22, and McGrath's 58th-minute strike stretched the lead to 14-3.

The St. Michael's College pupil continued to cause problems for England in open play. Three minutes later, he sniped away from the base of a scrum, play was switched into midfield and English replacement Joe Buckle earned a yellow card for infringing at the ensuing ruck.

McGrath coolly slotted the penalty and with eight minutes left on the clock, Ireland were on the cusp of a famous win.

14-man England launched a late comeback bid. Poor handling and indecision cost them at times, but they made the breakthrough in the 67th minute.

Their number 8 Clifford exposed some poor Irish tackling and was hauled down just short of the line by Henshaw. The ball was quickly recycled and Hepburn was able to dive over in the corner.

Replacement Will Hooley had a chance to make it a seven-point game, but his left-sided conversion attempt was never on target and Ireland deservedly held on for a title-winning finish to the season.

Referee: Arnaud Blondel (France)