The Ireland Under-19 team, sponsored by PwC, outscored France by four tries to three In Bordeaux this afternoon but a closing penalty from Mathieu Jalibert saw the hosts prevail on a 28-24 scoreline.
Kieran Campbell's young squad had worked hard both on and off the pitch in an effort to redress the balance following their heavy 44-15 defeat to the same opposition on Tuesday. Five players came into the starting line-up, including two 2017 Schools Cup-winning captains, Jack O'Sullivan (PBC Cork) and Max Kearney (Belvedere College).
This was a much closer contest than the midweek game and an enthusiastic crowd brought their own special atmosphere to the Stade Robert Brettes in Merignac, Bordeaux. Unfortunately for Ireland, the hosts continued where they left off on Tuesday, running in two early tries to lead 12-0 after just eight minutes.
France's key man Mathieu Jalibert, who finished with an impressive 18 points, had a hand in both, making the initial fifth-minute break and firing out the scoring pass for full-back Clement Laporte to race over in the left corner from just outside the Irish 22.
Then Jalibert combined well with his half-back partner Arthur Coville to touch down wide on the left and convert his own try, although Coville's offload looked suspiciously forward. Still, Ireland were beginning stretched by France's high-tempo play and missing too many tackles.
Crucially, Ireland responded in swift fashion and Dublin University's flying full-back Michael Silvester, one of their most threatening runners in the first match, finished off a fine attack in the 13th minute to put five points on the board. Tom Roche floated a long pass out to the right for his back-three colleague to cross from about six metres out, with David McCarthy, Hugh O'Sullivan and Tom O'Toole all getting over the gain-line in the previous phases.
Sean Masterson and his team-mates were suddenly in the ascendancy as they began to boss both possession and territory. Campbell College prop O'Toole showed good strength to notch a 19th minute try, wide on the left, which scrum half O'Sullivan converted to bring his side level.
James Hume took the ball on initially, crashing up past the 10-metre line, before a clever midfield switch involving his centre partner McCarthy and O'Sullivan invited winger Keane through a gap and he linked on the outside with both Michael Lowry and McCarthy whose well-timed passes released O'Toole for the line.
With France losing number 8 Alban Roussel to a yellow card barely three minutes later, Ireland continued to show good ball retention and press for openings. They had the French on the rack and only some last-ditch defence kept Campbell's youngsters out.
Indeed, the resilient home side managed to retake the lead in the last play of the first half, their reliable out-half Jalibert booting a penalty which made it 15-12 at the break. Ireland hit back with a strong start to the second period, their pack matching the opposition in all facets of play.
Six minutes in, openside Kearney finished off some great work from his fellow forwards with an unconverted try. O'Toole was inches short from an initial lineout maul from five metres out, but Kearney, picking his opportunity from the base of a ruck, did really well to crash in under a couple of defenders. Frustratingly, Ireland gave away a penalty from the restart which Jalibert knocked over for an 18-17 advantage.
Back came Ireland with wave after wave of attacks. Their fourth score came from John McCusker's well-won lineout tidied up by skipper Masterson, the ball being worked infield and that switch move involving McCarthy and O'Sullivan paid dividends again as they fed the onrushing Keane. He split the French defence and darted clean through from about 35 metres out for his his second try of the tour, with O'Sullivan supplying the extras. It was now 24-18 with less than half an hour remaining.
This was a superb advert for Under-19 international rugby, with huge amounts of endeavour, skill and an infectious will to attack and hunt down tries. However, Ireland's defence could not hold out just five minutes after Keane's effort, replacement prop Ugo Boniface building enough momentum in the carry to power his way over from close range.
Jalibert's successful conversion edged les Bleuets back in front at 25-24 and although Ireland remained very much in contention for the win late on, France forced another penalty within range and Jalibert's right boot had the final say with what was ultimately the match-winning kick.
Ireland team manager Barney McGonigle said afterwards: “This was a performance which highlighted the tremendous growth and development achieved by all the players in the squad in a very short space of time. The work put in by the coaches and management team with the players was of great benefit to all these talented young men. I'm extremely proud of them all.”
Referee: Federico Vedovelli (Italy)