The Ireland Under-18 Clubs & Schools team (sponsored by PwC) began their two-match series against England U-18 Counties with an assured 30-17 victory at Energia Park this afternoon.
Despite a spirited fight-back by England, an outstanding first half performance laid the foundations for Wayne Mitchell’s side to run out deserved 13-points winners. Paddy McAlpine, Joseph McCarthy (2) and Josh O’Connor all touched down to give Ireland a perfect tonic ahead of Saturday’s rematch at Ashbourne RFC.
In a fast-paced opening, Belvedere College out-half Justin Leonard and Ulster’s Ben Moxham provided Ireland with an instant creative spark on the fast Donnybrook surface. England also offered a considerable threat when in possession, but it was the hosts who hit the front with seven minutes gone.
Following a powerful attacking move on the right flank, Moxham’s pop pass released Campbell College tighthead McAlpine, who played against the England Counties outfit last year, for a simple run over the line. The try-scoring prop’s school-mate, Conor Rankin, was unable to convert from the touchline.
Ireland remained on the front foot, an extended attack inside the visitors’ 22 finding its way to Blackrock College lock McCarthy who crossed the whitewash with a powerful five-metre finish. Rankin slotted the conversion for an impressive 12-point lead with as many minutes played, although Moxham’s injury-enforced withdrawal was a setback.
Newbridge College’s Marcus Kiely entered the fray and Ireland continued to look the more fluent team. While the pack were proving formidable in the lineout and scrum, their work in the loose was equally effective. After finding a gap in the English defence, McCarthy raced over for his second try on the 20-minute mark.
Rankin added the extras for 19-0 with a superb strike from the left wing, and he also split the posts with two penalties in the lead up to the interval. Given the pressure that the Aaron Coleman-led home side were applying, it was inevitable that England would cough up place-kicking opportunities. His first effort aside, Rankin was imperious with the boot during the first half.
His second penalty was one of his best, finding the target from a tight angle on the right to increase his tally to 10 points. Middlesex’s Louis Kendrick opened England’s account late on, his penalty reducing the arrears to 25-3 with Ireland also having to replace Portlaoise scrum half Will Reilly just before half-time.
Having struggled to make a telling impact during the opening 35 minutes, England introduced three replacements on the resumption – Jacob Bailey, Tyler Norwood and Mathew Burns – and they would have made the perfect start but for winger Kendrick’s fumble with the try-line in sight. They absorbed further Irish pressure and looked to have a better structure in their defence.
Eventually, the Counties side built a platform inside Ireland’s 22 and got their reward, Midlands centre William Harding Terry bursting through for a hard-earned try via a well-executing close-range scrum. The conversion was landed by Max Brown but the seven-pointer only served to reignite Ireland’s superiority.
Chasing down a long kick on the right wing, Wexford Wanderers’ O’Connor grounded the ball for an opportunist unconverted score. It was the pacy winger’s third try in two outings in the green jersey this season – he scored twice for the Ireland U-18 Clubs team against the Italy Academy U-18s in October.
O’Connor’s latest try had all the hallmarks of a game-clinching effort, but England rallied with a late attacking surge. Thanks to the persistence of those around him, out-half and vice-captain Brown managed to crash over to the right of the posts for Kendrick to convert. Ireland, though, were out of reach and very good value for their 1-0 series lead.
Referee: Ruairidh Campbell (Scotland)