The Ireland Under-18 Clubs & Schools team (sponsored by PwC) missed out on a hard-fought opening win over England Under-18 Counties as the hosts came from behind to take the spoils – 15-13 – in wet and muddy conditions at the United Services Sports Ground in Portsmouth.
With the wind behind them in the first half, Mark Butler's youngsters opened up a 13-5 interval lead thanks to well-taken tries from Buccaneers prop Liam Winnett, who had a fine game at tighthead, and lively IQ Rugby full-back Oran McNulty. Scrum half Charlie O'Doherty from Scoil Mhuire agus Ide sandwiched in a penalty goal.
Ireland had more defending to do in a tightly-contested second period and it was England who claimed the final two scores, adding to Zach Clow's brilliant 60-metre solo try early on. Tighthead Isaac Thompson ran in an intercept try and then centre Clow completed his brace with the match winner, ten minutes from the end.
After England put the kick-off out on the full, Ireland ventured forward off a solid first scrum and some punchy early carries preceded a well-executed touchfinder from out-half Michael Cooke which brought play into the hosts' 22. England kicked the ball dead for a second time, ensuring the wind-backed visitors maintained a stranglehold on territory.
Both sides were guilty of unforced errors, England coughing up a penalty for crossing just as full-back Evan Davies had broken into the Irish half, while one overthrow from hooker Aaron Hennessy and a knock-on by Darragh Murray saw Ireland hand possession back from two lineouts.
Saul O'Carroll sucked in two defenders and offloaded for his Garbally College colleague Shane Jennings to spearhead a promising Irish attack up the right wing, but the overlapping Cooke lost control of the ball. O'Carroll and Jennings were on the ball again soon after, via an English knock-on, but McNulty was quickly closed down when attempting to break through, wide on the left.
The greasy ball continued to prove problematic, Buccaneers second row Murray knocking on after McNulty had shown good feet again in attack, and it took a piece of individual magic from Clow to break the deadlock. He used scrum possession to break past both O'Carroll and Cooke, racing over halfway and showing impressive pace to beat McNulty and touch down in the left corner.
The English centre's 12th-minute try went unconverted and Ireland upped their intensity and physicality straight from the restart, with Blackrock College's Ed Brennan and IQ Rugby centre Hayden Hyde both prominent. O'Carroll stepped in as first receiver off a scrum, feeding Hyde who cut a great angle and the forwards carried up closer before Winnett burrowed over for his try near the right corner.
Cooke was very unfortunate to see his well-struck conversion come back off the far left hand post. Luck was not on his side again when he very nearly claimed Ireland's second try. Captain Evan Murphy's block of an English clearance kick, coupled with Hyde diving on a loose ball after a forceful tackle from Brennan, had Ireland countering out to the right where Cooke threw a dummy and went for the line but was just held up.
A well-executed lineout maul set up a penalty on the English 10-metre line which scrum half O'Doherty crisply turned into three points. Then came Ireland's second try, Jennings doing well to gather the initial kick and then gobble up O'Doherty's inviting box-kick, showing great awareness to free up the supporting McNulty who got the better of two defenders up the left touchline to scramble over and make it 13-5.
The wind caught Cooke's conversion attempt and pushed it wide on the near side, leaving Ireland armed with an eight-point advantage at the midpoint of what was an engrossing contest despite the mud and heavy underfoot conditions. Now with the wind at their backs, England exerted the territorial pressure when play resumed.
They were aided by a couple of tight calls against Ireland by referee Dewi Phillips, including one where Hyde was penalised despite appearing not to have been held in the tackle. Skipper Murphy and Joshua Dunne, who were part of an excellent back row unit for Ireland, forced a breakdown penalty in response.
Frustratingly for Murphy and his mud-covered team-mates, England mustered a five-pointer out of nothing when a Winnett pass was intercepted by his opposite number Thompson who had the speed and strength to make it over in the right corner. It was very much 'game on' at 13-10.
Despite England losing replacement lock Matas Jurevicius to the sin-bin for a high tackle on Jennings, Ireland were unable to score during this period. Their best chance came from a Hyde break, but England did well on the scramble as did Butler's charges when English scrum half Joshua Goodwin had sniped into space from a ruck.
Clow increased his threat again with a slaloming run through the Irish defence, at the end of which Chris Moore, Mark Nicholson and Murphy managed to hold him up and deny him a second try. England remained on the front foot and although the covering Tom Bacon felt he had done enough to ground Goodwin's dangerous kick for a 22-metre drop-out, the loose ball was subsequent touched down by Clow and the nearby touch judge gave the decision England's way.
It was a third unconverted try for the hosts and England's confidence was certainly on the up. They had further chances to extend their lead late on, but Ireland dug their heels in with a well-executed choke tackle near their own try-line.
Tireless lock Murray also saved a certain try, tapping down a ball past his own whitewash after replacement Shane Murphy had been charged down. England sent a late penalty wide, but those tries from Thompson and Clow ensured a home victory in the first match of the Easter series.
Referee: Dewi Phillips (Wales)