A three-try second half surge set up a famous 38-36 win over previously unbeaten Wales as the Ireland Under-18 Schools team ended the U-18 International Series in the Principality on a high.
Hitting top form on the 4G pitch at Ystrad Mynach, Ireland clawed their way back from a 19-point deficit in a game that eventually ended up five tries apiece after both teams showed off their full array of attacking talents.
Head coach Noel McNamara made nine changes to the side that had been beaten 39-20 by England four days earlier in Llanelli and handed first starts to St. Gerard’s scrum half Cormac Foley and forwards John McKee (Campbell College), Thomas Clarkson (Blackrock College) and Cian Hurley (CBC Cork).
Ireland got off to a dream start when Harry Byrne landed a fourth-minute penalty to give the visitors an early lead, but they were rocked a few minutes later when a loose ball just inside their half was picked up by Wales number 8 Taine Basham who then proceeded to sprint 40 metres to the line.
That try was converted by out-half Cai Evans, son of Welsh rugby legend Ieuan Evans, and he then added a penalty to stretch the lead. Winger Tomi Lewis then made the running for a second Welsh try for scrum half Harri Morgan and another Evans conversion had Ireland 17-3 adrift after half-an-hour.
It took McNamara’s youngsters time to get to the pace of the game on the artificial surface, but once they found their feet they came more and more into the contest. Ballymena Academy’s Angus Kernohan struck first after 32 minutes with a try in the corner after some hard graft and yards made by captain Scott Penny and his pack. Number 10 Byrne nailed an excellent conversion.
But Wales were in full flow and created the try of the match for centre Tom Hoppe on the stroke of half-time to make it three tries to one. Evans converted and Wales were 14 points ahead once again at the interval – 24-10.
The first score in the second period was always going to be vital and some wonderful footwork from replacement Craig Casey set up flanker Penny for a try two minutes after the restart. Byrne added the extras and it was game on again.
Wales reacted immediately through full-back James McCarthy, who crossed the Irish line twice in the space of four minutes to hoist the hosts into a 36-17 lead. It was time for the Irish side to stand tall and they did just that, not only to hit back with three tries, but also to stop Wales from adding to their five-try tally.
The Irish pack had an edge at scrum time and were efficient and effective at the lineout. The back row of Penny, Martin Moloney and Dan O’Donovan also made life increasingly difficult for the Welsh with their tireless work at the breakdown and their constant hunger to carry the ball.
The great fightback was started by replacement Liam Turner from Blackrock in the 52nd minute. He jumped to catch a pinpoint cross-field kick from Byrne and then race to the line for a try that his out-half converted. Then it was the hard-working Irish pack that took over to add the killer touch.
A five-metre lineout was caught and then driven on to create enough panic in the home defensive system for Gonzaga College centre Eoin Barr to squeeze his way over from close range. Byrne’s conversion cut the gap to five points (36-31) with little over 10 minutes remaining.
There was now visible panic in the home ranks – Wales had beaten England in a game before the tournament started and then posted comfortable wins over Scotland and Canada before they met Ireland – and all the momentum was with McNamara’s fired-up charges. They needed to keep it going and they completed their remarkable comeback with a try from industrious front rower McKee.
That levelled the scores at 36-all before Byrne stepped up to tag on the conversion to complete his 13-point haul and edge Ireland in front for the first time after 63 minutes. Now it was a case of holding out for the win.
It seemed as though everything was going to plan until Wales won a penalty midway between the Irish 10-metre line and halfway. Up stepped Ioan Davies to shoot for glory, but his kick went wide and Ireland could celebrate a thrilling victory.
The result saw the Ireland U-18 Schools squad finish the week-long U-18 International Series in Wales with two wins out of three, and follow up on their U-18 Clubs & Schools compatriots’ double over England in Ashbourne.