The Ireland Under-19s (sponsored by PwC) ended the France U-20 Development team’s seven-Test unbeaten season with a terrific 21-17 comeback win in the picturesque village of Lumio last night.
A last-minute try from Mark Hernan, St. Michael’s Leinster Schools Senior Cup-winning captain, sealed the result for Tom Tierney’s side. They recovered from 10-0 and 17-7 deficits with Old Wesley prop Harry Noonan and Ulster prospect Aaron Sexton both touching down, while Bandon Grammar School skipper Jack Crowley landed all three conversions.
It was a difficult assignment for the Ireland U-19s given their only outing of the season was back in December against Australia, whereas the France U-20 Development had already played eight games since August, including seven internationals. The French had defeated England (41-21), South Africa (28-21), Wales (52-7), Italy (40-10), Georgia twice, and also Scotland (66-5) just last week.
As expected, the hosts started the game strongly and controlled a good percentage of the possession and territory early on. Toulon winger Erwan Dridi broke dangerously from just outside the French 22, striding past halfway but Oran McNulty and the chasing Sexton combined to force a knock-on in the tackle.
France used good width to stretch Ireland during a pacy seventh-minute attack, Nathanaël Hulleu getting past halfway again before two of their front rowers ran hard and passed neatly for Tani Vili to set up danger man Dridi for a run-in from the edge of the Irish 22 to the left corner. The conversion was missed.
Openside Hernan spent time in the sin-bin as Ireland came under further pressure, leaking a second unconverted try to Grégoire Bazin in the 17th minute. It came from a clever lineout move near the right corner as the flanker came onto the ball at pace and broke a tackle from Ireland captain John McKee to make the line.
Nonetheless, with McKee and fellow U-20 Grand Slam winners David McCann and Brian Deeny showing the way, Tierney’s charges started to grow more and more into the game. Centre Luis Fara showed his defensive skills to cover the danger produced by Thomas Dolhagaray’s chip over the top and dribble through by Kevin Viallard, who avoided being whistled up for offside from the initial kick.
A series of attacks soon saw Ireland take control of play and pressurise France via lineouts within try-scoring range. The home defence could not hold out, and just before half-time, McKee connected with Deeny in the air and a powerful drive propelled loosehead Noonan over, wide on the right. Crowley added the extras to cut the gap to 10-7 at the interval.
Both teams resumed in the second half in a very positive manner, attacking with ball in hand at every opportunity. The defences maintained their shape and were unwilling to give up points, as exemplified by a crucial Deeny turnover at the breakdown. It was in the final quarter that the fitness, skill, attitude, organisation and determination of the Ireland team shone through.
Despite giving away a penalty try due to a collapsed 63rd-minute maul, Ireland responded immediately with a flurry of attacks via Ballynahinch scrum half Lewis Finlay’s snappy deliveries and they duly took advantage of Dridi’s sin-binning. Finlay combined with McCann who drew in two defenders before releasing Sexton on the edge of the French 22 and the Bangor speedster broke through Cheikh Tiberghien’s attempted tackle to raid in close to the posts.
Crowley right-footed the extra points through the uprights to set up a grandstand finish with the 700 spectators gripped by the end-to-end action. Sensing victory, the visitors stuck to their strengths and attacked from both scrums and lineouts close to the French line, Finlay having to be hauled down a few metres short following a trademark snipe from a scrum.
Ireland retained possession, the bench making an impact and Faria and Deeny both gaining ground with carries before Hernan hurtled onto a flat Finlay pass from a close-in ruck and managed to crash over past two defenders. Crowley coolly nailed his third successful kick to make it a four-point winning margin.
In winning on French soil, Tierney’s class of 2019 have followed in the footsteps of the Ireland U-19 team of 2015 which defeated France 13-10 at Marcoussis during the annual two-match series. Current senior internationals Jacob Stockdale and Andrew Porter were part of that squad, four years ago.
McKee and his team-mates will have an opportunity to complete a 2-0 series win at Stade Armand-Cesari in Bastia, Corsica on Easter Saturday (kick-off 8pm local time/7pm Irish time).
Referee: Ross Mabon (Scotland)