The Ireland Under-18 Schools team will play off against Scotland for seventh place at the Rugby Europe U-18 European Championship, following tonight’s 14-9 defeat to Wales in Balma, France.
Just like last Friday's loss to Georgia, Noel McNamara's young side managed to lead at half-time – 6-0. However, they did not make enough of a strong first half wind as Wales scored two second half tries to secure the win.
Wales started quite strongly and opted to go down the line when awarded a third minute penalty. It led to a five-metre scrum. The Welsh piled on the pressure, but the Irish defence held firm and in the end they turned the ball over and broke out.
The Irish Schools outfit were not without their chances during a bright opening spell. They had Wales pinned back deep in their 22 before an overthrown lineout allowed their opponents to clear and suddenly Ireland were 50 yards closer to their own whitewash.
Nonetheless, team captain Bill Johnston, who switched to inside centre, kicked Ireland into a 13th minute lead after Wales were penalised for offside on their 22. He added a second successful kick in the 20th minute, rewarding his forwards for a multi-phase attack and some impressive mauling.
Wales tried to inject pace and intensity into the game, playing into a strong wind but errors cost them. Their lineout was scrappy and a huge defensive display from Ireland shut them out. Back rowers Caelan Doris, Tom de Jongh and John Foley were instrumental in that effort, while Johnston's kicking game saw him use the wind well.
Just after the half hour, Ireland were once again awarded a penalty off a lineout maul. But this time Johnston dragged his penalty wide from the left of the posts on the 22. It was perhaps a score Ireland needed just before the break having had the wind advantage in the first half.
Although Ireland looked comfortable with the wind at their backs, Wales pressed early in the second period. With Welsh out-half Arwel Robson and full-back Rhun Williams kicking well tactically, they got good field position and the pressure they put Ireland under finally told.
McNamara's charges leaked a series of costly penalties which saw Wales kick for the corner. Ireland held out on a couple of occasions, but the penalty tally was too much for referee Matthew O'Grady's liking and second row Jonny Guy, who was otherwise excellent, saw yellow in the 51st minute.
From the resulting kick to the corner and lineout, Welsh flanker Aled Ward made it over for the opening try. Robson converted to nudge the young Dragons ahead for the first time. The seven-pointer knocked some of the confidence out of the Irish players and within minutes, a clearance kick deep into the Welsh half saw them punished again.
Rhun Williams gathered just outside his 22 and ran the ball back, slipping passed a would-be tackler before running hard into space. With centre Kieran Williams running a good support line up the middle, he received the pass and ran in under the posts. The conversion from Robson saw Ireland trailing by eight points (14-6) with just 15 minutes remaining.
But Ireland did respond well to that latest setback. Having played some good rugby, they won an inviting penalty three minutes later. Having kicked for the corner and won the lineout, there was initial disappointment as the ball was knocked on within metres of the try-line. However, Ireland came again and when Robson was sin-binned with eight minutes left, Johnston opted for goal and duly cut the gap to 14-9.
It made for a grandstand finish in which Ireland had Wales under the pump inside their 22 for the last 10 minutes, but they just could not break down the resolute Welsh defence. They required more control at key stages as try-scoring opportunities, via a couple of penalties, were missed. Handling errors and a tackle into touch thwarted the Irish attack and they also had no luck from a cross-field kick.
The frustrating five-point reversal means Ireland will play in Saturday's 7th-8th place play-off in Tournefeuille (kick-off 12pm local time/11am Irish time). Their opponents will be Scotland who lost to Portugal on penalty kicks following a 0-0 draw this evening.
The third and final match gives the Irish youngsters a chance to further their own collective progression in the tournament which was evident against Wales. They upped their intensity levels and all-round effort but did not punish Wales with the possession they had.
IRFU High Performance Manager Colin McEntee, who watched Ireland's opening two games, said: “We'll look forward to Scotland. Anything can happen on Saturday. We are learning an awful lot about the players and about how they bounce back. They are improving.
“There is a big effort to try to get everything right for the weekend now and finish it off on a high which is no more than the coaches and players deserve. It would be a good reward for the honesty and endeavour that has taken place over the last week.
“Wales, Scotland and Georgia. Three good games. Those three games for us, it is about developing through the process, ID-ing players for the future and most definitely (this) would have done that.
“Scotland affords us another chance to play one of the four nations, our neighbours, don the green and like all (Ireland) Schools teams in the past and in the future, they will put their all into the jersey. The coaches will go back to work, tonight and tomorrow, to ensure the guys pick themselves up for Saturday.”
Referee: Matthew O'Grady (England)