Two closing tries from backs Oran McNulty and Karl Martin wrapped up a 46-27 win for the Ireland Under-18 Clubs team over Portugal on Saturday, with Dan van Zyl’s young side outscoring their hosts by eight tries to three.
Bath Academy flanker Connor Beer, one of the players from the IQ Rugby programme identified through the Irish Exiles, captained the squad on his Ireland debut. The visitors' tries were shared out by Hayden Hyde, Paddy McKenzie, Padraig McCarthy, Saul O'Carroll, Oran McNulty and Karl Martin, while Dungarvan lock Thomas Ahern impressed with a brace of scores.
It was Ahern who plucked down out-half McKenzie's kick-off to put Ireland immediately on the front foot at Jamor's Estadio Nacional. Joe Henry, Hyde and hooker McCarthy were all prominent in attack early on, but Portugal forced a knock-on from scrum half Shane Murphy at the back of a ruck, and from a kick downfield, a mix-up between O'Carroll and McNulty offered the home side a scrum.
Errors were expected given the Irish squad's limited time together, and there were obvious nerves felt when playing for your country for the first time. Ireland were caught offside in defence to the right of their posts and out-half Jeronimo Morais, who had a big influence for Portugal with a 17-point haul, knocked over the close range penalty for a fifth-minute lead.
A mistimed lineout, five metres out, saw Ireland miss out on a chance to respond immediately, but facing into a blustery wind, the visitors attacked smartly off a ninth-minute lineout outside the Portuguese 22, full-back McNulty making the incision on the right and passing for Hyde to finish off near the corner – 5-3.
Murphy missed the conversion but he added the extras to his half-back partner McKenzie's 17th-minute try. Ireland built some promising phases off strong carries from back rowers Evan Murphy and Joshua Dunne, the former also pinching a lineout on halfway. McNulty and Hyde opened up holes in the home defence, and after the forwards took play closer to the line, Wicklow clubman McKenzie was able to step inside a defender and squeeze in underneath the posts.
Ahern then started and finished a terrific 24th-minute attack, firstly winning McKenzie's 22-metre dropout and linking with his second row partner Iarlaith Morrin Laheen who took Ireland up towards Portugal's 22. Charlie Ward and McCarthy punched hard in the carry before Henry's well-timed delivery gave Ireland numbers on the right and Conor Morrissey's final pass put Ahern over in the corner for 17-3.
Portugal used a couple of ruck penalties to get back into scoring range and a solid set of phases ended with tighthead Sebastian Castanheira touching down, with Morais' conversion bringing it back to a seven-point deficit.
It was 22-10 to Ireland by half-time, leg-pumping drives from Ward and Ahern pinning Portugal back initially before Henry's break and link-up with his centre partner Martin led to a penalty. From the resulting five-metre lineout, McCarthy was driven over in the left corner.
Portugal made a lively start to the second half, with Ireland falling foul of referee Filipa Jales' whistle at ruck time. Morais fired over a penalty from inside the 22 and Ireland attempts to respond, on the back of a penalty-winning scrum, were foiled by a forward pass 10 metres out from the Portuguese line.
Both the scrum and lineout were areas of strength for Ireland, albeit that the wind played havoc with the hookers' throws. However, it was one of Portugal's lineout jumpers, Martim Bello, who was next over the whitewash, catching the visitors out as he sprung clean through from a ruck on the Irish 22-metre line to dive over in the left corner.
Morais brilliantly curled over the conversion to bring Portugal back within two points – 22-20 – but Ireland settled back down again, making their possession and territory count with tries from winger O'Carroll (59 minutes) and Ahern (65), the second of which was converted by replacement out-half Ben Daly.
Number 8 Dunne's work at the breakdown, coupled with a rip in the tackle that launched replacement Mark Nicholson on a 15-metre burst, had Ireland on the cusp of a try. Hyde was halted just short on the near side before the ball was transferred across to the left where O'Carroll was able to finish off in the corner.
Ireland had another near miss before Ahern completed his brace. Nicholson gobbled up the metres off an overthrown Portuguese lineout, Daly also finding a gap in midfield before centre Henry was tackled five metres out. Portugal survived but flanker Murphy secured turnover ball from the resulting lineout, Martin and Hyde then driving up close to the posts before Ahern muscled over from a couple of metres out.
Daly clipped over the conversion to open up a 34-20 lead but Morais kept Portugal in the hunt with a try five minutes later, finding a hole in Ireland's rush-up defence and diving over to the left of the posts. He added the conversion himself before Ireland sealed the deal by taking their try tally to eight late on.
Ireland hit back strongly from the restart, Daly breaking up into the Portuguese 22 and fellow replacement Paddy Harris also gaining good ground. The home side were caught for numbers on the right and a neat necklace of passes between Daly, Chris Moore, Conor O'Brien and Nicholson saw McNulty go over untouched. In the final play, as Portugal tried to go wide from their own 22, Boyne clubman Martin swooped in for an intercept try under the posts, converted by O'Brien.
Commenting on the squad's time together and what the rest of the international season holds for the players, team manager Philip Coyle said: “The trip (to Portugal) as a whole was very enjoyable and the boys worked really hard especially in King's Hospital where we assembled on Monday morning. We had five tough pitch sessions through to Wednesday and then travel time on Thursday to Lisbon. The squad had a slow start on the Monday session but gelled really well as the days progressed.
“Looking ahead, we hope that as many of these players progress to either the Ireland Under-18 Schools or Clubs & Schools squads which will assemble at Christmas for camp, and then home internationals against England for the combined team and a Five Nations tournament for the Schools side at Easter.”
TIME LINE: 5 minutes – Portugal penalty: Jeronimo Morais – 3-0; 9 mins – Ireland try: Hayden Hyde – 3-5; conversion: missed by Shane Murphy – 3-5; 17 mins – Ireland try: Paddy McKenzie – 3-10; conversion: Shane Murphy – 3-12; 24 mins – Ireland try: Thomas Ahern – 3-17; conversion: missed by Shane Murphy – 3-17; 30 mins – Portugal try: Sebastian Castanheira – 8-17; conversion: Jeronimo Morais – 10-17; 37 mins – Ireland try: Padraig McCarthy – 10-22; conversion: missed by Shane Murphy – 10-22; Half-time – Portugal 10 Ireland 22; 41 mins – Portugal penalty: Jeronimo Morais – 13-22; 52 mins – Portugal try: Martim Bello – 18-22; conversion: Jeronimo Morais – 20-22; 59 mins – Ireland try; Saul O'Carroll – 20-27; conversion: missed by Shane Murphy – 20-27; 65 mins – Ireland try: Thomas Ahern – 20-32; conversion: Ben Daly – 20-34; 70 mins – Portugal try: Jeronimo Morais – 25-34; conversion: Jeronimo Morais – 27-34; 73 mins – Ireland try: Oran McNulty – 27-39; conversion: missed by Ben Daly – 27-39; 76 mins – Ireland try: Karl Martin – 27-44; conversion: Conor O'Brien – 27-46; Full-time – Portugal 27 Ireland 46
Referee: Filipa Jales (Portugal)