The Ireland Under-20s were left to rue a sloppy start to the second half as they came desperately close to overturning World Rugby U-20 Championship hosts France in Perpignan.
A three-try salvo in the opening 10 minutes after half-time proved enough for the French to prevail 26-24 in the end, although Noel McNamara's youngsters had them under immense pressure and picked up a deserved losing bonus point.
Well-taken tries from Joe Dunleavy (20 minutes) and Hugh O'Sullivan (40+1) gave Ireland a hard-earned 17-5 interval lead, as they brushed off some unfortunate injuries and prop Jack Aungier's sin-binning.
However, those injuries left Irish resources stretched and the reigning Six Nations champions took control of the scoreboard with successive touchdowns from captain Arthur Coville, Romain Ntamack and Maxime Marty, adding to his first half effort.
Driven on by workhorse skipper Caelan Doris, Diarmuid Barron and Tommy O'Brien, Ireland stayed in contention and Harry Byrne's neat 71st-minute try, converted by the out-half himself to complete his 14-point haul, set up a grandstand finish at the end of which Cameron Woki's lineout steal rescued the result for les Bleuets.
Ireland's collective performance was all the more impressive given that James French and Charlie Ryan were pre-match withdrawals, and five new caps, along with unused replacement prop Bryan O'Connor, were fielded by McNamara on the tournament’s opening night.
Giving his reaction after the game, the Clare man said: “We’re disappointed. We put ourselves in a position to win the game, and unfortunately we didn’t do that. It’s really important that we learn the lessons from this. Obviously we turn around on Sunday and we’ve a massive challenge against South Africa, so it’s really about regrouping and recovering and facing up to that.
“We played very well for 40 minutes, we put ourselves in a really strong position (at 17-5). We could have been in a stronger position, we scored a try that was disallowed, came back for the yellow card, and obviously that was a turning point.
“For us it was about doing more of the same (in the second half). We made a couple of errors after half-time. You have to give credit to France, they were clinical, they took those two opportunities. But you have to give enormous credit to our boys, they came back at the end.
“Really I think if we took that lineout in the final minutes, we would have driven them in. We showed a number of times that we could drive them and that when we were in the score zone we could score, so yeah, we’re disappointed.”
Despite getting off to a solid start, Doris and his team-mates fell five points behind in as many minutes. Number 10 Byrne was charged down in his own 22 and France ran the penalty with Lucas Tauzin feeding fellow winger Marty to score in the left corner.
Ntamack missed the conversion and Byrne was also narrowly off target with his first penalty attempt, following a ground-gaining midfield attack spearheaded by tireless centre Tommy O'Brien. Ireland needed to tidy up their discipline with a fourth penalty leaked inside the opening quarter hour mark, and they breathed a sigh of relief when Ntamack nudged a long-range penalty attempt wide.
A crisp 29-metre strike from Byrne got Ireland on the board in the 17th minute, punishing Daniel Brennan for his second penalty offence, and they followed up with a brilliant team try off their sixth successful lineout from six throws.
The maul initially gained ground and then they exposed a couple of defensive gaps on the left wing, taking France through 13 phases before excellent flanker Dunleavy drove over from a couple of metres, aided by Doris' timely latch.
Despite Byrne adding the extras for a 10-5 lead, France continued to look threatening off limited possession, particularly Marty who was just denied a try by a crucial cover tackle from replacement Sean O'Brien, who had come on for the injured Dan Hurley who had his leg trapped at a ruck.
A Clement Laporte break promised much but Marty overran the full-back's pass and another try-scoring chance went a-begging for France. Tom Roche, one of Ireland’s debutant backs, also missed out on an intercept try when a TMO decision went against him, with Aungier seeing yellow for a prior ‘swinging arm’ tackle on Ntamack.
However, Ireland defended smartly while down to 14 men and France’s handling errors rose to six just before the break. Off a last-minute scrum in the hosts’ 22, the Irish pack picked and drove with great intent and scrum half O’Sullivan scrambled over for another encouraging try, converted by Byrne.
Frustratingly, an Irish knock-on near halfway allowed France to swiftly conjure up a try soon after the restart. Ntamack’s offload and the bulldozing Jordan Joseph’s ability to break a tackle set up skipper Coville for a converted 42nd-minute try.
The French seized the lead barely three minutes later, Ireland’s kick chase was too slow and the home side flooded down the right wing before the increasingly-influential Ntamack managed to dot down from his own kick through. The Toulouse starlet’s conversion split the sides at 19-17.
Ireland’s nightmare start to the second half continued when they leaked a 50th-minute bonus point score, France’s powerful bench gaining them a scrum penalty before Laporte carved open the midfield defence and passed wide for Marty to get over in the corner past Sean O’Brien.
Ntamack knocked over the conversion from out wide for a 26-17 scoreline, and his opposite number Byrne had a spell off the field for a head injury assessment as Ireland struggled to fire a shot in what turned out to be a one-sided third quarter.
Doris and Tommy O’Brien won two relieving penalties at the breakdown, either side of another barnstorming run by strongly-built French replacement Joseph, who boasts huge strength for a 17-year-old, and Ntamack pushed a 66th minute penalty wide after a dominant French scrum.
That left the door open for an Ireland comeback and a couple of penalties, including one at a maul, invited the resilient green-shirted pack forward. They moved lineout possession infield and had France on the rack, Byrne then switching to the short side for replacement Jonny Stewart to send him over for a smartly-worked try.
Byrne’s well-struck conversion from the left had the margin down to two points, the gap remaining in place despite France twice kicking penalties to the corner. Their maul attempts were thwarted by Ireland, and scrum half Stewart’s subsequent breakout from deep and kick downfield, which forced Laporte to concede a lineout in his 22, raised Irish hopes. Woki had other ideas, though, and his well-timed jump pinched Dan Sheehan's throw and denied Ireland at the death.
Number 8 Doris admitted afterwards: “We came very close but unfortunately it wasn’t close enough. We knew France were going to come out of the blocks quickly after winning the Six Nations and in front of a home crowd, so we talked about matching that in the first 20 minutes and even going above that.
“It was the first 10 minutes of the second half that let us down. It was mishaps in our defence that let us down, just one-on-one missed tackles. It was two breakaway tries. We built back in the final quarter but we fell just short.”
With South Africa joining France in winning their first Pool C fixture against Georgia (33-27), the Ireland captain added: “We’ll review our match and preview South Africa over the next couple of days. From what I know of them, they have a pretty big pack as well, another physical challenge, so we have to get our recovery right for Sunday’s game against them.
“There’s three physical teams with us in this pool, all capable of coming out on top. We’re still hoping to get out, we don’t know how it’s going to go but that’s still the aim.”
TIME LINE: 4 minutes – France try: Maxime Marty – 5-0; conversion: missed by Romain Ntamack – 5-0; 9 mins – Ireland penalty: missed by Harry Byrne – 5-0; 13 mins – France penalty: missed by Romain Ntamack – 5-0; 17 mins – Ireland penalty: Harry Byrne – 5-3; 20 mins – Ireland try: Joe Dunleavy – 5-8; conversion: Harry Byrne – 5-10; 34 mins – Ireland yellow card: Jack Aungier; 40+1 mins – Ireland try: Hugh O’Sullivan – 5-15; conversion: Harry Byrne – 5-17; Half-time – France 5 Ireland 17; 42 mins – France try: Arthur Coville – 10-17; conversion: Romain Ntamack – 12-17; 45 mins – France try: Romain Ntamack – 17-17; conversion: Romain Ntamack – 19-17; 50 mins – France try: Maxime Marty – 24-17; conversion: Romain Ntamack – 26-17; 66 mins – France penalty: missed by Romain Ntamack – 26-17; 71 mins – Ireland try: Harry Byrne – 26-22; conversion: Harry Byrne – 26-24; Full-time – France 26 Ireland 24
Referee: Karl Dickson (England)