The Ireland Under-20s erased a 17-point first half deficit to claim a stunning 26-25 win over highly-rated Wales in their World Rugby U-20 Championship opener.
The crowd at the Manchester City Academy Stadium witnessed an absolute classic this evening, with tries from Adam McBurney and Jacob Stockdale – just before half-time – sparkling Ireland's enthralling comeback.
Ulster starlet Stockdale crossed again in the 68th minute, adding to debutant out-half Bill Johnston's vital kicking haul of 11 points.
Wales, who won a first ever U-20 Six Nations Grand Slam earlier this year, picked up a late bonus point try through Keelan Giles, but replacement Jarrod Evans missed the conversion from out wide on the left and Ireland stood firm for a confidence-boosting one-point victory.
Spurred on by two-try full-back Stockdale and hard-carrying, soft-offloading number 8 Max Deegan, who won the man-of-the-match award, Nigel Carolan's young side deservedly prevailed on the tournament's opening night, and will have to recover quickly from this bruising battle ahead of Saturday's showdown with defending champions New Zealand.
Head coach Carolan said afterwards: “What a game! We gave them three (early) tries and it looked like an uphill battle at 17-3 but I think we regrouped and with the last five minutes in that first half, to get the maul try and then just keep possession when the clock was running down. It really just got us back into the game.
“We started the second half as we finished the first, great pressure and we got our nose in front and I thought we looked comfortable. Wales really threw the kitchen sink at us and it was great character from our guys to hold on at the end and get a huge win.”
However, Ireland can ill-afford a similarly sluggish start against the Baby Blacks as Scarlets out-half Daniel Jones inspired an early 17-point surge from Wales.
Jones miscued his first shot at the posts in the third minute, but the young Dragons' pace off the mark was evident in both defence and attack. Ireland took their time to settle and were not helped by a shoulder injury which ended prop Conor Kenny's involvement after just six minutes.
Wales built forward pressure from a scrum penalty and lineout maul, and then flanker Shaun Evans managed to scramble over for a try from a close-in ruck. Jones' conversion attempt came back off the post.
The opening quarter ended with Ireland 17-0 in arrears, Jones pulling the strings with a couple of high quality try assists. His cross-field kick allowed winger Giles to slip past Matthew Byrne on the left touchline and touch down, and then Jones countered from 40 metres out and passed for Reuben Morgan-Williams to step inside his opposite number Stephen Kerins and score to the right of the posts.
After Jones had opened his scoring account with the conversion, Ireland pressed from successive penalties in the Welsh 22 and Munster Academy member Johnston dinked a drop goal over for 17-3.
Lineout errors dogged both sides before an opportunist kick chase up the left wing from Shane Daly almost led to an Irish try. Harri Millard managed to get back in time to deny the Cork Constitution centre.
Barely a minute later, Stockdale brilliantly shrugged off Giles near the Irish posts to launch a promising counter from deep with Daly again involved, this time a shoulder-led challenge by Daniel Jones resulted in a close range penalty.
Ireland hunted for an elusive try, Andrew Porter missing out with a double movement before a subsequent maul saw his front row colleague McBurney pile over from a well-executed lineout maul.
Johnston's missed conversion left nine points in it, yet the gap was down to just two by the interval as Carolan's resilient charges swiftly pocketed a second try.
Using a penalty advantage entering injury-time and with Cillian Gallagher, Porter and McBurney all prominent up front, the ball was moved wide to the right where Conor O'Brien cut past two defenders and passed for Stockdale to finish off. Johnston added a crisp conversion with the final kick of a topsy-turvy half.
Scoreless since the 20th minute, Jones got Wales back on track with an early penalty on the resumption, although Johnston was quick to respond with a terrific strike from near the 10-metre line.
But Ireland maintained their momentum from the second quarter, with Stephen Kerins playing a key role from scrum half. An excellent catch by winger Byrne from a Johnston kick launched one of their best collective attacking spells as captain James Ryan, his second row partner Gallagher, Porter and Deegan all carried forcefully.
Welsh indiscipline close to their whitewash saw Johnston boot Ireland in front for the first time at 21-20, and some sparkling link-up play between Deegan and Daly almost led to a breakout try soon after.
The error count increased at the tail-end of a largely scrappy third quarter, although a determined Stockdale showed his ability with a fine piece of fielding and a break from his own half.
One area where Wales looked stronger was the scrum, but just when they were beginning to threaten with ball in hand, Lansdowne clubman Deegan got over a ruck ball to win a relieving 65th minute penalty.
A leg-pumping drive from Stockdale forced Wales to infringe once more at the breakdown, and it was the big full-back who completed a smashing team try just minutes later, excellent hands from Deegan, Greg Jones, Ryan and McBurney feeding Conor O'Brien whose looped pass put Stockdale over in the left corner.
Johnston was unable to convert from the touchline but Ireland were now on the cusp of a tremendous result, matching their efforts from February's thrilling Six Nations comeback triumph away to England.
There was still work to be done, though, defending a six-point lead with just under ten minutes remaining. Wales suddenly began to look dangerous once more, bustling centre Millard punching holes with a powerful burst up the right.
Some clever distribution created the space for the nippy Giles to squeeze over by the left corner flag. With TMO input, the 78th minute score was awarded, but Evans failed with the very difficult conversion attempt.
In a tense closing two minutes, Wales tried to break out of their own half, only to be met by an unyielding Irish defence. A Jones tackle dislodged the ball from Welsh hands and forced them back to their 22 before a final knock-on from try scorer Giles sparked jubilant Irish celebrations.
TIME LINE: 3 minutes – Wales penalty: missed by Daniel Jones – 0-0; 12 mins – Wales try: Shaun Evans – 5-0; conversion: missed by Daniel Jones – 5-0; 17 mins – Wales try: Keelan Giles – 10-0; conversion: missed by Daniel Jones – 10-0; 20 mins – Wales try: Reuben Morgan-Williams – 15-0; conversion: Daniel Jones – 17-0; 25 mins – Ireland drop goal: Bill Johnston – 17-3; 36 mins – Ireland try: Adam McBurney – 17-8; conversion: missed by Bill Johnston – 17-8; 40+1 mins – Ireland try: Jacob Stockdale – 17-13; conversion: Bill Johnston – 17-15; Half-time – Wales 17 Ireland 15; 43 mins – Wales penalty: Daniel Jones – 20-15; 44 mins – Ireland penalty: Bill Johnston – 20-18; 51 mins – Ireland penalty: Bill Johnston – 20-21; 68 mins – Ireland try: Jacob Stockdale – 20-26; conversion: missed by Bill Johnston – 20-26; 78 mins – Wales try: Keelan Giles – 25-26; conversion: missed by Jarrod Evans – 25-26; Full-time – Wales 25 Ireland 26
Referee: Paul Williams (New Zealand)