The Ireland Under-18 Schools team (sponsored by PwC) slipped to a 19-17 defeat to Scotland in the final round of the Under-18 Six Nations Festival in Cardiff this afternoon.
Despite trailing by 12 points at half-time, the Ireland Under-18s courageously fought their way back into the game and had a chance to win it at the death only for a drop goal from scrum half Nathan Doak to fall just short.
Tries from Connor Boyle, Robbie McCallum and Alex Pleasants was enough for Scotland to remain unbeaten for the duration of the three-round tournament. Ireland responded with tries from Under-16 centre Karl Martin and replacement scrum half Ben Murphy, the son of Ireland skills and kicking coach Richie Murphy, while Doak kicked seven points.
Following Wednesday's 36-28 loss to Festival hosts Wales, Peter Smyth's youngsters started the game like a side with a point to prove. The Irish forwards, led by captain John McKee, put in a number of powerful carries but they were met by a resolute Scotland defence, meaning both sides cancelled each other out in the opening exchanges.
But Scotland began to put Ireland under pressure and forced them into conceding a number of penalties. With Smyth's side on the back foot, Scotland out-half Nathan Chamberlain worked an overlap five metres out only for Ireland hooker Tom Stewart to knock the ball forward intentionally.
After conferring with one of his assistants, referee Manuel Bottino opted to send Stewart to the sin-bin. Instead of taking the three points, Scotland went to the corner with flanker and skipper Boyle scoring the game's first try from the subsequent 18th-minute maul.
Inside centre McCallum extended Scotland's lead just five minutes later. Following a neat break from Chamberlain, the ball was spread wide for the 18-year-old McCallum to touch down. Scotland were now in the ascendancy and grabbed their third try on the half hour mark when replacement prop Pleasants smashed his way over from close range after a number of powerful carriers from the pack.
However, Ireland showed a lot of character to fight their way back into the contest and managed to get a try back on the stroke of half-time. After a series of powerful driving lineouts, giant lock Tom Ahern broke clear and very nearly reached the try-line. The ball was recycled for Boyne clubman Martin to touch down at the posts, meaning McKee and his team-mates turned around 19-7 behind at the break.
The Irish Schools XV came out of the blocks firing in the early stages of the second half and very nearly got their second try when St. Gerard's full-back Max O'Reilly burst through a gap to put winger Aaron Sexton into space. But the big Bangor Grammar School winger lost his footing after an impressive tackle from Jack Blain.
Instead, Ireland had to settle for three points from the boot of Sexton's Ulster colleague Doak. They spent the majority of the second half camped in Scotland 22. But for some remarkable defence by their opponents, most notably when it took five defenders to hold up St. Augustine's student Ahern over the line, Ireland would have scored more tries.
Finally, they got their reward for all their pressure when Pres Bray half-back Murphy sniped over the line with 60 minutes on the clock. Doak's conversion closed the gap to a mere two points, and while Ireland pushed incredibly hard to snatch the win in the dying minutes, a late Doak drop goal did not have the legs and fell short of the target.
Giving his reaction afterwards, Ireland U-18 Schools head coach Peter Smyth said: “Scotland had that purple patch and scored their three tries, but we dominated much of the remainder of the game and we were good value for our 17 points. In the end, time ran out on the clock.
“This tournament has taught us the need to manage momentum swings in matches. When one try goes in, you have to stop the rot there. Unfortunately, one try went in and a second and third followed. We had a similar situation against Wales and if we can take anything out of that, it is learning how to manage those swings. It will be interesting to see when these players pair up again at Under-20 level
“To go 19-0 down after 25-30 minutes, but hit back to 19-17 put us in with a chance of victory and was a huge testimony to the character of our lads. Over the week they have demonstrated that as a group.”
Referee: Manuel Bottino (Italy)