Conceding 17 points in the opening 21 minutes, the Ireland Under-20s gave themselves too much to do in this evening’s World Rugby U-20 Championship tie as they lost to Georgia for the first time in three meetings at this level.
A bruising pool campaign came to a disappointing end for Noel McNamara's youngsters in Narbonne where they were beaten 24-20 by the Junior Lelos, who led 17-8 at half-time thanks to converted tries from Arsen Machaladze and Sandro Svanidze (with a lung-bursting intercept score).
Ireland matched Georgia's three-try tally with late efforts from replacements Cormac Daly and Jakub Wojtkowicz, adding to Conor Dean's first half touchdown, but a 43rd-minute breakaway try from out-half Tedo Abzhandadze, who played for the Terenure College U-20s this season, secured a well deserved victory for the Georgians.
Captain Caelan Doris was again Ireland's standout player and the result leaves the number 8 and his team-mates battling to avoid relegation in next week's 9th-12th place play-offs. They were seeded 10th after the pool stages and will face 11th-ranked Scotland at Perpignan's Stade Aimé Giral on Tuesday (kick-off 4pm local time/3pm Irish time), with the winners meeting either Georgia or Japan.
Kerry native Jack Daly and Sligo prop Wojtkowicz, two of the injury-hit squad's recent call-ups, made their Ireland U-20 debuts as both teams chased their first victory of the tournament. Anyone who watched Ireland's hard-fought 24-18 play-off success against Georgia in Tbilisi last summer knew the class of 2018 had a big battle on their hands
A frustratingly familiar pattern in Ireland's campaign in France is falling behind to early scores and they did so again, leaking turnovers to the hungry Junior Lelos and giving them field position. They took full advantage when Montpellier starlet Gela Aprasidze's neat inside pass sent lock Machaladze powering over for an opening 10th-minute try.
Aprasidze converted and then swapped penalties with Dean, who lifted Ireland with a well-struck 47-metre place-kick, but Georgia continued to win the collisions with the likes of Tornike Jalagonia, the team's physical enforcer in recent matches, and Sandro Mamamtavrishvili both laying down a marker with big tackles.
Although Mamamtavrishvili went too high and earned a yellow card for a hit on Ireland full-back Peter Sylvester, the Georgians stung the 1/4 pre-match favourites with a second try while down to 14 men. James Hume's pass in the Georgian 22 was picked off by Svanidze who had the pace to break clear and gleefully dive in under the posts.
Aprasidze added the extras to extend the lead to 17-3 before some decent phase-building from Doris and company saw Ireland press in attack. Just past the half hour mark and following a prolonged spell in and around the Georgian line, quick passes out to the right from Jack Daly, Diarmuid Barron and Jack Aungier allowed Dean to step inside a defender and register an unconverted try.
It was a much-needed score for Ireland who had been sloppy up to that point with a number of missed tackles and handling errors, and the hope was that they could regroup at half-time with input from coaches McNamara, Paul O'Connell and Ambrose Conboy. However, Georgia continued to show the greater physicality, skill and ingenuity, opening up the second period with a cleverly-worked third try.
They profited from an overlap on right to attack from deep through hard-running replacement Lasha Lomidze. He drew in a defender to release Deme Tapladze and the winger's kick infield set up the onrushing Abzhandadze to finish off a classy team score. It was converted by his ever-influential half-back partner Aprasidze.
Ireland were disjointed in their attempts to respond, and Doris' disappointment was obvious when he made a break out wide but lacked support and the opportunity was lost. Tighthead Luka Japaridze was to the fore as Georgia began to hammer home their advantage at scrum time, a worrying sight for the Irish pack with a full quarter still to play.
Encouragingly, McNamara's charges did lift the intensity and force the issue as their bench players began to make an impact and they showed plenty of character as a unit. Wojtkowicz joined fellow new cap Jack Daly on the field in the closing stages, but luck was not on Ireland's side as a Jonny Stewart try from a lineout maul was ruled out for a forward pass from Doris, who was previously pinged for a double movement when attempting to score.
There were near misses for both sides late on when another TMO decision denied strong-running winger Sean O'Brien a well-merited try and Otar Dzagnidze was unable to turn a intercept effort into another opportunist score for the buoyant Junior Lelos.
Ireland will at least take some momentum into next Tuesday's showdown with Scotland thanks to a late two-try salvo. Lively replacement Cormac Daly's quick tap led to Dan Sheehan being held up short before Daly managed to burrow over, and then Sheehan threw in to Daly at an 81st minute lineout and Wojtkowicz used the advancing maul to reach out for the whitewash and gain a losing bonus point.
Giving his reaction afterwards, Ireland captain Doris said: “We had quite a few defensive lapses, in particular some one-on-one missed tackles and some decisions didn't go our way. We knew Georgia were going to bring a lot of physicality, a big forward pack with hard runners latching on to gain momentum for their skilful backs.
“They came into the game with that game-plan, executed it very well, and we just came out the wrong side of the big collisions, and they got the ball and scored tries off it.”
He added: “We had high ambitions coming into the tournament, and we came close against France. We were close again against South Africa, and the boys just kept going until the last minute today. I was proud of the efforts the lads put in, but it just shows you that there are small margins at this level, and unfortunately too many of them didn't go our way over the three games, which is very disappointing.”
TIME LINE: 10 minutes – Georgia try: Arsen Machaladze – 0-5; conversion: Gela Aprasidze – 0-7; 13 mins – Ireland penalty: Conor Dean – 3-7; 16 mins – Georgia penalty: Gela Aprasidze – 3-10; 19 mins – Georgia yellow card: Sandro Mamamtavrishvili; 21 mins – Georgia try: Sandro Svanidze – 3-15; conversion: Gela Aprasidze – 3-17; 32 mins – Ireland try: Conor Dean – 8-17; conversion: missed by Conor Dean – 8-17; Half-time – Ireland 8 Georgia 17; 43 mins – Georgia try: Tedo Abzhandadze – 8-22; conversion: Gela Aprasidze – 8-24; 77 mins – Ireland try: Cormac Daly – 13-24; conversion: Harry Byrne – 15-24; 80+1 mins – Ireland try: Jakub Wojtkowicz – 20-24; conversion: missed by Harry Byrne – 20-24; Full-time – Ireland 20 Georgia 24
Referee: Jamie Nutbrown (New Zealand)