The Ireland Under-20s fell agonisingly short of defeating Grand Slam champions France in their opening IRB Junior World Championship match in Auckland, going down 19-13 to their Pool B rivals.
Mike Ruddock's youngsters put their injuries woes and a French-dominated first half behind them to seize control of the game during the third quarter.
However, they were unable to force their way over for a potentially decisive converted try and France held on with two Brandon Fajardo drop goals proving the difference between the sides.
The French, boasting a much more settled side, dominated first half possession and territory. They opened up a 16-3 lead thanks to Ivan Roux's 31st-minute try, with half-backs Baptiste Serin and Fajardo kicking the other points.
But Ireland, thanks to a tenacious defensive display, hung in there and got their reward four minutes before the break when full-back Cian Kelleher ran in a timely seven-pointer.
Aided by a superior scrum, the Irish had France on the back foot on the resumption but they had no points to show for it as the otherwise impressive Ross Byrne sent a penalty wide.
Although Byrne's replacement Conor McKeon did claw back three points in the 68th minute, it was in response to Fajardo's second crisply-struck drop goal of the night and France were relieved to hang on in a nervy finish.
Despite the frustrating defeat, Ireland will take encouragement from the level of performance they put in – particularly in the second half – with six players winning their first Under-20 caps (Ciaran Gaffney, Dylan Donnellan, Darragh Moloney, Diarmaid Dee, Ryan Foley and Billy Dardis).
Ruddock's side, who pick up a losing bonus point for their efforts, are back in action on Friday when they face a must-win clash with Wales in Pukekohe. The Welsh top the Pool B table with five points after their six-try 48-19 win over Fiji.
France seized the early initiative at QBE Stadium with scrum half Serin almost scoring inside two minutes. He knocked on under pressure from the covering Kelleher after a smart chip and chase.
Two solid scrums from Ireland settled them into the game, the second one setting up a long range penalty which Byrne converted with aplomb for 3-0.
France built good territory in response, carrying strongly in the Irish 22 and Serin brought them level after Garry Ringrose and Dan Goggin were ruled offside.
The physical French forwards continued to dictate as they broke the gain-line and a no-arms tackle by Kelleher on Kylan Hamdaoui led to Serin swinging over the lead penalty from wide out on the right.
Workhorse flanker Peadar Timmins stood out as Ireland survived another bout of pressure which was relieved by a turnover in the 22 and a subsequent clearance kick from Timmins himself.
Ireland's attacking opportunities were limited during the first 30 minutes, but centre Goggin twice found space as he wriggled free of tacklers and prop Peter Dooley consistently made ground – albeit with the French 22 remaining out of reach.
Serin was denied a try-scoring opportunity by crossing and Ireland did not help themselves with some loose kicking and a lineout that malfunctioned at times.
They leaked lineout possession in their own 22 on the half hour mark and France struck for a try that had been coming. Yacouba Camara and Oleg Ishchenko built momentum close to the posts before Fajardo's well-timed pass to the left put centre Roux over for a converted score.
Fajardo increased his influence with a well-struck drop goal while France had a penalty advantage, but Ireland soon began to eat into the 13-point deficit. Their first concerted visit to the French 22 resulted in a try.
Goggin, captain James O'Donoghue and Max Abbott made the initial incisions during a spell of good handling and recycling. Ruck possession was retained and Kelleher broke a tackle and swept by Fajardo to touch down to the left of the posts.
Byrne's successful conversion cut the gap to 16-10 and despite some further French pressure close to half-time, Ireland drew confidence from the choke tackle as Goggin and Ringrose won turnover ball from a maul.
Ireland also began the second period in good stead, a rewarding scrum giving them a penalty and a second French infringement in the lineout gained them additional ground.
They were metres away from a try when winger Gaffney collected a cross-field kick from Byrne and fed the supporting Frankie Taggart who was hauled down just short of the French line.
Ireland continued to hold the upper hand in the scrum despite the introduction of a completely new French front row who were fortunate to get away with wheeling a close-in scrum as Ruddock's charges pressed for a try.
The excellent Dooley was then heavily involved during a promising set of pick and goes from the Irish forwards, however openside Camara won a key turnover that got France off the hook.
The French scrum breathed a sigh of relief when Byrne missed a kickable penalty in the 60th minute. It was a score Ireland deserved given their control of the third quarter.
While Ireland had the better of general play, France showed glimpses of their attacking ability and Gaffney and replacement scrum half Foley managed to hold up Francois Bouvier over the line after a Fajardo-inspired attack.
The Six Nations winners lost subsequent ground as Dooley brilliantly drove Camara back in the tackle, only for Fajardo to answer back with a terrific drop goal in the 64th minute.
A determined O'Donoghue stepped up for Ireland with a powerful burst from a scrum in the French 22 and Dardis, coming off the bench, also popped up in attack before fellow reserve McKeon fired over his three-pointer.
That score kept Ireland within a converted score and they impressively maintained their stranglehold of the scrum with the introduction of Denis Coulson, Donnellan and Oisin Heffernan up front.
The set piece platform launched the green shirts forward in the closing stages, however they twice lost the ball forward in contact inside the French 22 and showed their inexperience at crucial junctures.
France, who conceded 16 penalties compared to Ireland's six, survived a close-in lineout and two scrums before they made certain of their hard-fought victory.
TIME LINE: 6 minutes – Ireland penalty: Ross Byrne – 0-3; 9 mins – France penalty: Baptiste Serin – 3-3; 14 mins – France penalty: Baptiste Serin – 6-3; 31 mins – France try: Ivan Roux – 11-3; conversion: Baptiste Serin – 13-3; 35 mins – France drop goal: Brandon Fajardo – 16-3; 36 mins – Ireland try: Cian Kelleher – 16-8; conversion: Ross Byrne – 16-10; Half-time – France 16 Ireland 10; 60 mins – Ireland penalty: missed by Ross Byrne – 16-10; 64 mins – France drop goal: Brandon Fajardo – 19-10; 68 mins – Ireland penalty: Conor McKeon – 19-13; Full-time – France 19 Ireland 13
Referee: Matt O'Brien (Australia)