There was agony for the Ireland Under-20s at Donnybrook tonight as they came out on the wrong side of an 11-try thriller, which ended in a 41-38 U-20 Six Nations victory for their Welsh counterparts.
Free-running Wales looked set for a comfortable win when they led by 16 points early on in second half. However, with UCC's Jack O'Sullivan brilliantly leading their charge, Noel McNamara's youngsters came away with two points to their credit but with a huge sense of frustration with their defensive lapses.
Head coach McNamara made three changes to his starting line-up. After missing the 38-34 bonus point win over Italy at the same venue through illness, Ronan Kelleher was recalled to the front row where he rejoined his Leinster team-mates Jordan Duggan and Jack Aungier.
Elsewhere, scrum half Jonny Stewart returned from his two-match stint with the Ulster senior team, while Banbridge and Ulster Academy starlet James Hume made his debut alongside the impressive Angus Curtis in the centre.
Both of Ireland's opening two games had been high-scoring affairs, and it was not long before the deadlock was broken in this highly entertaining Celtic clash. A knock-on by Ireland captain Tommy O'Brien led to a Welsh scrum, and with highly-rated number 8 Taine Basham freeing up Harri Morgan who released the pacy Tommy Rogers for a clinical finish in the left corner.
The touchline conversion by full-back Cai Evans was narrowly off target, but it was a matter of minutes before he had another opportunity off the kicking tee. A powerful maul on the right ended with Welsh lock Max Williams burrowing over the line for a ninth-minute converted try. These were early ominous signs for the home side, who were aiming to keep themselves in contention for a Championship challenge.
The Ireland U-20s started to settle as the first half progressed, though, and they finally got their account up and running on 16 minutes. Following a series of attacking phases inside the Welsh 22, out-half Harry Byrne fired over a close range penalty to cut the gap to 12-3.
However, despite their heavy defeat to England a fortnight ago and ten changes in personnel, Jason Strange's Wales outfit continued to play with supreme confidence. At the end of another prolonged attack near the whitewash, flanker James Botham, the grandson of English cricket legend Ian Botham, scored with Evans adding the extras.
Ireland almost received a lifeline when the Ulster-capped Stewart attempted to touch down under a host of Welsh bodies. Referee Sam Grove-White ruled out the score on the advice of his TMO Neil Paterson, but McNamara's charges finally found a way through the stubborn red-shirted defence before the interval.
A strong charge by hooker Kelleher helped Ireland to create space for their back-line to exploit. The quick-witted Curtis had been probing for much of the half, and he deservedly claimed the opening try for his side with a neat finish. Byrne converted from the left, reducing the arrears to 19-10.
Ireland were hoping to carry the attacking momentum into the second half, and they did not have long to wait for their second try. Disappointingly, it arrived after Wales had grabbed their bonus point score. Straight from the restart, Joe Godchild secured possession deep inside his own half. He picked out the dynamic Morgan who, in turn, released captain Tommy Reffell for a try under the posts.
This was the kind of setback that Ireland were desperately hoping to avoid, but they got themselves back into contention in the 47th minute. Athletic number 8 O'Sullivan capitalised on a gap in the Welsh defence to dive over in fine style, with Byrne once again supplying the conversion.
This was a catalyst for an action-packed final half-an-hour, during which both sides threw caution to the wind on a regular basis. A lineout inside their own 22 appeared to lift the pressure off Ireland's shoulders, only for it to inadvertently lead to another Welsh five-pointer. Kelleher's wayward throw fell into the arms of Botham and he completed his brace.
Even still, Ireland simply refused to concede defeat in this compelling battle. Another terrific touchdown by O'Sullivan, who was later named man-of-the-match, as well as a routine Byrne conversion cut the gap down to seven points. They could not quite curb the attacking instincts of the young Dragons, however, as centre Callum Carson immediately replied with an outstanding finish on the left flank.
Although it seemed unlikely at the time, this proved to be Wales' sixth and final try of this absorbing tie. Ireland, on the other hand, really started to find their groove inside the final quarter. Following several phases inside the Welsh 22, Stewart sniped over for the score that his performance deserved.
Wales gave themselves some crucial breathing space with a 72nd-minute Evans penalty for a 41-31 advantage, before Ireland unloaded their bench for a grandstand finale. Skipper O'Brien brilliantly evaded a tackle 40 metres out to notch a brilliant breakaway try five minutes from time, the move seeing Ireland build from the back with excellent hands from Conor Dean, Tom O'Toole and Jack Dunne.
A successful Stewart conversion raised the possibility of an incredible comeback with only three points between the sides, but the Wales U-20s held on to draw first blood on an electric weekend of three Ireland v Wales internationals in Dublin.
Referee: Sam Grove-White (Scotland)