Jack O’Sullivan’s last-gasp try guided the Ireland Under-18s to a memorable 21-17 win over the England Counties U-18s at Ashbourne RFC on Saturday afternoon.
Ireland's second and final game of the U-18 Tri Nations Festival was played in wet conditions at the County Meath venue, with rain falling throughout this closely-fought encounter.
This made for difficult handling conditions but the home side, coached by Mark Butler and Colm Tucker, coped well despite a strong start from England.
Ireland came under pressure right from the off and a third minute penalty from out-half Sam Hollingsworth had the visitors ahead. They kept ahead up to half-time, leading 9-6 at the turnaround.
Ireland's defensive systems were thoroughly tested but England could not break the line. Hollingsworth made it 6-0 in the 16th minute with his second successful place-kick, but his opposite number, Ballymena Academy's Bruce Houston, split the posts with kicks after 20 and 28 minutes to open Ireland's account.
The tackle area and breakdown were hotly contested and while Hollingsworth's reliable boot maintained England's advantage on the scoreboard, Houston had Butler's youngsters back on level terms just seven minutes into the second half.
Half-time replacements Cathal Duff, Paul Mullan and Jack Dunne made their presence felt as Ireland probed and tried to punch their way through the English defensive line. The hosts' dominance at scrum time was also built upon as the match wore on.
However, despite solid defence of an English maul which was driven back 10 metres, the visitors regained that lost ground and then moved the ball wide for Hollingsworth to sidestep through from five metres out for a 46th minute try.
He missed the conversion before Ireland again ratcheted up the pressure, containing the visitors in their own half for much of the second period. England's defence held out until the 54th minute when a series of strong carries primed them to strike from a maul and Blackrock College's Andrew Murphy managed to crash over for a deserved try.
The Ireland number 8 and captain's five-pointer squared things up at 14-all, with Corey Reid and Michael Silvester coming on to bolster the home attack. The Irish lineout, led by Navan's JJ O'Dea, performed well throughout the contest and the driving maul was a weapon that caused the English pack problems.
With just over 10 minutes remaining, Hollingsworth increased his influence with a well-struck penalty from the 10-metre line that sent England back in front – 17-14. However, Ireland had more in reserve and redoubled their efforts for a big finish.
Some determined running from centre David McCarthy of Skibbereen helped to get them back into scoring range, and in the final minute, quick thinking by the Irish forwards when a scrum penalty was awarded saw blindside Jack O'Sullivan go over for a try close to the posts.
The Pres Cork back rower's opportunist score was converted by Houston to put the seal on a superb comeback victory for Ireland, who had some big performances from the likes of O'Dea, Houston, McCarthy and try scorers Murphy and O'Sullivan.