A stirring second half fight-back from the Ireland Under-20s fell short as fortune favoured France in a 34-24 Six Nations win for the hosts in Bordeaux.
Second half tries from Ulster-capped scrum half Jonny Stewart and debutant Munster Academy winger James McCarthy, coupled with a penalty try, saw Noel McNamara's new-look side cut the deficit to just three points after trailing 22-3 at half-time.
But late French pressure yielded a clinching try from powerful replacement prop Demba Bamba, and Ireland's luck was summed up when Harry Byrne missed a last-minute penalty which would have earned them a deserved losing bonus point.
McNamara and his fellow coaches, including Ireland great Paul O'Connell, will take plenty of positives from that second half performance, while also acknowledging that the earlier mistakes need to be ironed out for their first home game against Italy at Donnybrook next Friday (kick-off 7.15pm).
French out-half Romain Ntamack – son of former French star Emile Ntamack – was hugely influential in the opening 40 minutes with a 17-point haul, including two well-taken tries. Busy flanker Ibrahim Diallo also touched down from a clever 26th-minute lineout move.
A lone Byrne penalty had the gap down to 10-3 at one stage, but Ireland, who fell 19 points in arrears by half-time, were well contained by the physical French rush defence until some tactical tweaks saw them make a real contest of it in the third quarter.
New head coach McNamara gave debuts to nine players in the starting XV, including six up front, while UCD and Leinster 'A' star Tommy O'Brien took on the captaincy role at centre as Ireland targeted their first away win over France at U-20 level since 2012.
However, good hands from the French half-backs released Clément Laporte up the left wing for the first incision, Ireland then leaking a penalty for offside and Ntamack landed the resulting third-minute kick for a 3-0 lead.
The all-Leinster front row of Jordan Duggan, Ronan Kelleher and Jack Aungier were rock solid on France's first scrum, and after a stray pass from the hosts, Stewart probed well with the boot, gaining some decent territory on the left hand side.
A couple of soft penalties allowed France to get into try-scoring range past the 10-minute mark, and although Ireland sacked the maul and Ulster prospects Matthew Dalton and Aaron Hall led the tackle count, space was created on the right for Ntamack to dart over and convert his own try.
Ireland's response was encouraging, the maul doing some damage but Jack O'Sullivan was stripped of possession by Arthur Vincent after a strong carry from the UCC number 8, who was the best ground gainer of the Irish forwards.
A promising Irish attack was foiled a few minutes later, skipper O'Brien's attempted offload in the French 22 being intercepted by full-back Laporte. Nonetheless, loosehead Duggan forced a scrum penalty against Daniel Brennan and Byrne's right-sided kick opened Ireland's account.
Poor refereeing by England's Christophe Ridley, who penalised an Irish player who was held in at a ruck and then missed some interference in midfield by France, allowed les Bleuets to build for a second try. Diallo crashed over in the right corner, profiting from Killian Geraci's quick tap-down when Ireland expected a maul.
It got worse for McNamara’s charges just a couple of minutes later when the Irish defence was sucked in and Ntamack sliced in between Kelleher and winger Peter Sullivan and had the pace to make the line, to the left of the posts. His well-struck conversion made it 22-3.
Ireland improved as half-time loomed, turnover ball seeing Sullivan kick through up into the 22 and then the forwards forced a scrum with some muscular maul defence. Frustratingly, Aungier was pinged at the scrum and O'Brien, Kelleher and David McCarthy had to stand tall in defence to force a knock-on and avoid a potential bonus point score.
The second half was evenly-balanced until France got on the front foot again, prop Hassane Kolingar barging up towards the posts before Ireland were able to successfully defend the maul and James McCarthy's crucial tackle on Pierre-Louis Barassi led to a relieving scrum.
Lively replacement Sean Masterson gave his side a further boost with a well-won penalty at the breakdown, and Ireland soon breathed new life into this exciting Championship opener. Aungier split the defence with a powerful carry, and from Byrne’s stabbed kick through, Iban Etcheverry tackled Michael Silvester early and referee Ridley awarded a penalty try despite Sullivan and O’Brien both grounding the ball.
The penalties were now coming in Ireland’s favour as France lost their discipline. The hosts successfully defended a maul near the right corner, before the match officials missed a dummy throw by the French hooker Maxime Lamothe.
Ireland used a subsequent penalty to set up another close-in maul and Stewart brilliantly broke from the back to evade Lamothe along the right touchline and dive over in the corner. Byrne swung over an excellent conversion to cut the gap to 22-17 just on the hour mark.
France’s decision to replace some of their key men, including Ntamack and captain Arthur Coville, appeared to be back-firing but luck was on their side when Maxence Lemardelet was ruled not to have knocked on from a kick through and replacement scrum half Jules Gimbert, who had been offside from the initial kick, managed to ground the loose ball for the bonus point try.
10 points was now the difference and Ireland let a gilt-edged maul opportunity go when Thomas Lavault disrupted Jack Dunne at a close-in lineout and forced a turnover. Still, Ireland showed a lot of character and resilience to bounce back with an excellent counter-attacking try. James McCarthy drew in two defenders past halfway and sent O’Brien flying up the left touchline before his return pass put the Munster Academy back racing over for a try to the left of the posts.
Byrne, who was increasingly influential in exposing the space behind the French defence, added a well-struck conversion to give Ireland a real shot at 27-24 down and seven minutes left to play.
Unfortunately, replacement James French was caught offside from a richoceting kick, allowing les Bleuets to turn the screw through their bigger pack. Ireland were hanging on after collapsing a maul and then holding Geraci up soon after, but what appeared to be a knock-on from the French scrum was not whistled up by Ridley, and the pressure told when Bamba forced his way over.
Replacement Louis Carbonel's crisp conversion took the home side well out of Ireland's reach at 34-24, and although the visitors dug their heels in to force a long range penalty in the dying seconds, Byrne nudged his kick just the wrong side of the target.
TIME LINE: 3 minutes – France penalty: Romain Ntamack – 3-0; 13 mins – France try: Romain Ntamack – 8-0; conversion: Romain Ntamack – 10-0; 23 mins – Ireland penalty: Harry Byrne – 10-3; 26 mins – France try: Ibrahim Diallo – 15-3; 29 mins – France try: Romain Ntamack – 20-3; conversion: Romain Ntamack – 22-3; Half-time – France 22 Ireland 3; 53 mins – Ireland try: Penalty try & con – 22-10; 53 mins – France yellow card: Iban Etcheverry; 59 mins – Ireland try: Jonny Stewart – 22-15; conversion: Harry Byrne – 22-17; 66 mins – France try: Jules Gimbert – 27-17; conversion: missed by Louis Carbonel – 27-17; 73 mins – Ireland try: James McCarthy – 27-22; conversion: Harry Byrne – 27-24; 79 mins – France try: Demba Bamba – 32-24; conversion: Louis Carbonel – 34-24; 80+2 mins – Ireland penalty: missed by Harry Byrne – 34-24; Full-time – Ireland 34 France 24
Referee: Christophe Ridley (England)