A 60th minute try from replacement Cian Kelleher proved crucial at Madrid’s Ciudad Universitaria on Friday, as the Ireland Under-18 Schools team held off a spirited second half fightback from Portugal to qualify for the semi-final stage of the FIRA/AER Under-18 European Championship.
Click here to view highlights of the Ireland-Portugal match.
Having recorded an impressive 25-12 victory over Scotland in a warm-up fixture played in Coolmine last Sunday, Ireland would have entered into this game with plenty of confidence.
Terry McMaster's youngsters enjoyed the best possible start to the proceedings when Rockwell College's David Johnston got through in the corner for an opening minute try, which was converted expertly by Conor McKeon.
This was a dream beginning for the Irish, and though the Portuguese got on top in terms of territorial possession soon after Johnston's score, they were unable to take advantage.
Ireland moved 12-0 ahead with their second try of the contest, courtesy of dynamic Terenure College centre Harrison Brewer in the tenth minute.
This gave Ireland an excellent platform to build on, though Portugal would finally open their account just two minutes later when scrum half Manuel Queiros split the posts with a difficult penalty kick.
However, Ireland were not to be deterred in their quest for victory, and they found themselves 23 points to the good by the half hour mark.
They do so thanks to some well-taken tries by powerful Clongowes number 8 Peadar Timmins and Cormac O'Donnell of St. Munchin's, both converted with ease by the deadly accurate McKeon.
Despite their best endeavours Portugal were simply coming off second best, but they did give themselves a fighting chance heading into the second period.
They broke through for a a 32nd minute converted try by winger Francisco Lobo after a sustained period of pressure.
Yet, with 16 points separating the sides, Ireland were still in a very comfortable position, and this would soon increase to 19 when Gonzaga's McKeon brought his tally to nine with his only penalty of the afternoon ten minutes after the restart.
Credit must go to the Portuguese though, as they never gave up. They registered their second try of the game after 49 minutes when second half replacement Pedro Avila picked a hole in the Irish defence before touching down underneath the posts for a score that was easily added to by Queiros.
Heading into the final 20 minutes, both sides opted to utilise their extensive replacements bench which offered fresh impetus to an already fast-paced encounter.
It was Ireland who would get the most out of their reserves, however, as Cian Kelleher, a recent Leinster Senior Cup winner with St Michael's College, crossed the whitewash moments after replacing the equally effective Brewer.
This was the fifth try in total for the Irish and it was in many ways their most important, as it gave them what was ultimately an insurmountable lead over their determined rivals.
Portugal did manage to reduce the winning margin with a late try from replacement hooker Tomas Moreira, which was converted by full-back Nuno Guedes.
Overall, this was a very impressive performance from the young Irish side, but they will have be at their best when they take on France, the conquerors of Scotland, in a mouth-watering semi-final clash on Tuesday.
Referee: Claudio Blessino (Italy)