The Ireland Under-18 Schools team’s opening game of the season ended in a 39-20 defeat to France at Templeville Road, but Peter Smyth’s squad will still take plenty of positives forward into the Under-18 Six Nations Festival in Wales.
Showing the obvious benefits of their match against England three weeks ago, which they won 27-5 on home soil, the French side swept into a 12-0 lead after just seven minutes thanks to tries from backs Maxime Espeut and Nathanael Hulleu.
However, with captain John McKee showing his leadership qualities, the Ireland School outfit knuckled down and strung together 17 unanswered points, including a brace of tries from PBC Cork number 8 Alex Kendellen and seven points from the boot of scrum half Nathan Doak, the son of former Ulster scrum half and head coach Neil Doak.
France, who had flanker Wael May sin-binned, were fortunate to be level at half-time (17-17) as the match officials missed a forward pass in the lead up to Thibault Hamonou's closing try just before the break. Nonetheless, the visitors' greater cohesion and strength in depth, allied to their size advantage, saw them pull away in the second half.
Ulster youngster Doak landed a lone 48th-minute penalty in response to France's fourth try from replacement Tom Deleuze, before Hamonou and Hulleu completed their braces and Antoine Bousquet, another of the influential French reserves, touched down in the 67th minute from a turnover to seal a 19-point win.
Busy centre Angus Adair went close to an early steal in contact for the Ireland U-18s, but France soon took their opponents through the phases, breaking on the blindside before play was switched in towards the posts where centre Espeut's angled run saw him collect Hugo Dolhagaray's inside pass and give the visitors a second-minute lead.
Dolhagaray's conversion was followed a positive first attack from Ireland off a lineout, with Aaron Sexton released on the left wing for a cut at the defence. However, Doak took the wrong option when kicking over the top and France countered clinically, winger Hulleu sprinting up the left touchline and grounding the ball from his own chip through and dribble forward.
Ireland managed to hit back a few minutes later, though. Hulleu conceded a lineout outside his 22, Anthony Ryan took down Tom Stewart's throw, and Ryan O'Neill dummied and darted through a gap before popping the ball to the supporting Kendellen, the third member of the back row, to finish off to the right of the posts. Doak converted to make it a five-point game.
Buoyed by that score, Ireland began to show more in attack with Boyne Under-16 talent Karl Martin and Andrew Smith getting their hands on the ball. With France guilty of going off their feet at a ruck near their own 10-metre line, Doak stepped up to loft a beautifully-struck penalty over to cut the gap to 12-10.
A terrific Doak touchfinder from a penalty brought Ireland quickly back into scoring range, and with France leaking successive penalties as Ireland drove to within metres of the whitewash, yellow-carded flanker May paid the price for collapsing the maul. France tried their best to get a sack, but the resulting maul saw Kendellen driven over with Doak's conversion giving Ireland a 17-12 lead.
They were unable to build on that, though, with an overlap ignored on the left and the half-backs guilty of forcing the play at times and kicking loosely. France put the ball through the hands and got over the gain-line, Georgian referee Shota Tevzadze allowing the attack to develop despite the aforementioned forward pass, and big number 8 Hamonou managed to crash over in the left corner.
Dolhagaray's conversion attempt bounced back off the crossbar and Ireland had to scramble to avoid another concession before the referee blew for half-time. France broke dangerously from a stolen lineout inside their own half and it took a crucial rip in the tackle by St. Augustine's, Dungarvan lock Tom Ahern to prevent them from scoring.
The next score was going to be vital and the second half was something of a stalemate early on, with both teams well organised in defence. Although the ability of Clongowes flanker Ryan in the air continued to supply clean lineout ball, France got in to poach set piece possession from Ahern. Espeut's well-timed pass released fellow centre Théo Costosseque up into the 22 and he flung the ball wide for Deleuze to cross in the right corner.
A Doak penalty, following Ahern's restart win and a strong carry by tighthead Charlie Ward, kept Ireland hot on France's heels at 22-20 down, but the visitors caught Ireland narrow in defence again when full-back Rémi Brosset spearheaded a break down the right wing. Max O'Reilly, who had moved to the wing after Sexton picked up an injury, got back to make a tackle, yet Hamonou was able to take a quick tap a few phases later and power over from five metres out.
The Toulouse back rower continued to cause Ireland problems, with the hosts needing a combination of Ahern, Ryan and Ward to hold him up following a scrum won against the head by les Bleuets and another lineout steal. France now had all the possession and territory and they duly set up winger Hulleu for his second try and a 32-20 lead, with Smith stepping in but missing his attempted intercept and tackle.
The match officials again erred when failing to penalise France for a forward pass and then giving them a scrum after their own knock-on. A subsequent call for a forward pass did go Ireland's way, but they made a series of errors when trying to knit together a response from deep, including Ben Power's missed touchfinder from a penalty. Théo Lachaud used turnover ball to charge towards the Irish 22 and offload for fellow replacement Bousquet to run in the seventh and final try, converted by Costosseque.
Tireless Royal School Armagh openside O'Neill was a whisker away from a late consolation score, just failing to hold onto the ball in his attempt to intercept just outside the French 22. So, a losing start for the Ireland Schools squad under Smyth and fellow coaches Mossy Lawler and Jamie Corbett, who will be hoping to see their charges hit the ground running against Italy in next Saturday's U-18 Six Nations Festival opener in Caerphilly (kick-off 5pm).
Referee: Shota Tevzadze (Georgia)