The Ireland Under-18 Schools team fell to a 3-1 penalty kick defeat to Georgia in their opening game of the Rugby Europe Under-18 European Championship in France tonight.
Noel McNamara's young Ireland side were made to rue missed first half chances in Montauban as Georgia remained within striking distance, trailing by five points at half-time – 8-3. Having fought their way back to level the game at 8-8, they remained composed to kick three penalties in the shoot-out and seal a dramatic victory.
The Georgians came into the game on the back of a two-week camp in Clermont and got off to a good start with a penalty, three minutes in, from their scrum half Gela Aprasidze.
While the contest was tight in the opening exchanges, Ireland fought back with a penalty from out-half and captain Bill Johnston bringing his side level on 11 minutes.
After that, Ireland seized control. Their pack was the driving force behind their only try in the 15th minute. Hooker Conor McEvoy, and flankers Caelan Doris and John Foley, were good throughout and showed control and patience as they picked away at the Georgian defence before possession was moved wide for Methody winger Robert Lyttle to touch down.
The score came from a good initial set-up at a lineout 20 metres from the Georgian line. The Irish pack mauled and rumbled towards the whitewash. Having pounded away, enough defenders were drawn in for an overlap to be created on the right and the ball was transferred out to Lyttle who got over in the corner. Johnston's conversion attempt was off target.
McNamara's charges should have made their scoring opportunities count but the patience shown for the opening try of the game was lacking at the end of the half. Three chances went a-begging with a knock-on, a turnover and finally winger Calvin Nash was held up short just before half-time.
Ireland's failure to finish off a second try gave Georgia confidence which they built on. To their credit, the Junior Lelos defended tremendously well and got their rewards in what was a stop-start second period.
While Nash and Lyttle had made great inroads in the first half, they did not have the same impact on the resumption. Even so, Ireland could have made it a two-score game when they won a penalty on the 22, on the right, but Johnston missed the target.
Georgia hit back with the levelling five-pointer in the 45th minute, winning a lineout on the Irish 22 and their powerful pack mauled their way up to the line where replacement front row Levan Chavchavadze touched down to the right of the posts. Aprasidze was unable to convert.
Just five minutes later, Aprasidze was wide with a penalty from front of the posts as the game hung in the balance. As the pendulum swung again, Ireland were given a final chance to win the game but Johnston pulled a 30-metre right-sided kick wide.
With neither team able to manufacture a winning score in injury-time, this Elite quarter-final tie was decided by a penalty shoot-out – five for each team, one from the centre, left, right and two in front of the posts once more.
Ireland replacement Conor Dean converted first, with Georgian flanker Shota Areshidze leveling the penalty competition. Johnston missed from the left, pulling his effort to the right of the posts, while full-back Mirian Modebadze put Georgia in front and Irish centre Tim Foley missed from the right.
Georgia's out-half Dato Modzghvrishvili converted from the right and when Nash missed Ireland's fourth kick, it gave the Georgians the verdict and a semi-final place against Italy, the 14-13 conquerors of Wales.
Afterwards, IRFU High Performance Manager Colin McEntee said the Ireland U-18 Schools squad would now focus on next Tuesday's clash with Wales. The winners of that game will face either Scotland or Portugal in the 5th-6th place play-off on Easter Saturday.
“We have Wales to concentrate on now. While they (the players) are disappointed, the challenge now is to turn that into a performance against Wales – that is what they are going to do,” he said.
“Wales were expected to beat Italy and Italy turned them over. For our boys, you are playing one of your neighbours in the Six Nations. It is a really good opportunity to harness that disappointment into a performance.
“This is the first tournament for most of the guys and there is a massive learning curve. Massive development happens throughout the tournament, irrespective of the result. A lot of guys will kick on from this.
“The tournament format, you are playing every four days, so you are feeling sorry for yourself or you are the opposite, you have a game in four days. That prepares guys for the future. It's trying to get the guys in the best shape physically and mentally and prepare for Tuesday…look forward and learn from what has happened.”
Referee: Elia Rizzo (Italy)