A hat-trick of tries from full-back Jacob Stockdale proved to be the highlight at Ashbourne RFC today as the Ireland Under-18 Schools team produced an impressive five-try display in overcoming a competitive Ireland Under-18 Clubs outfit. The game was structured in sections to allow both sides gain maximum use of their squads.
This traditional festive fixture was structured as a training game rather than a routine competitive clash, which made it slightly unorthodox in comparison to the usual fare at the County Meath venue.
Within this structure, there were several drop-outs where normally there would be place-kicks and the coaching staff from both sides were firmly camped on the field of play for the vast majority of the contest.
There were also an absence of conversions following each try, and despite what the final scoreline might suggest, it was the Ireland Under-18 Clubs side that threatened to break the deadlock during the early exchanges.
Ronan Wallace of Mullingar and left winger Peter Howard from Cill Dara were posing a significant threat to the Schools rearguard in the opening moments, and it took some strong defensive work by Paul Kiernan and Colm Mulcahy to keep them at bay.
The Noel McNamara-coached Schools side eventually settled into the contest, however, and they crossed the whitewash with 12 minutes gone on the clock.
Wallace High School's Jacob Stockdale reached over in the left corner for the opening score following excellent approach play by Mulcahy and Newbridge out-half Jimmy O'Brien.
After a shaky beginning to the tie, the Irish Schools found themselves in the ascendancy and even though they were kept on the back foot moving into the second quarter, they always looked like they were capable of breaking from deep.
Indeed, this is exactly what they did after 23 minutes when a swift lay-off by Stockdale paved the way for Clongowes Wood centre Mulcahy to embark on a tremendous individual run on the left flank.
The excellent number 13 made significant ground in this passage, but just as the opposition defence were getting ready to halt his progress, he linked up smartly with Stockdale, who powered over for his second try of the day.
This ensured that the Irish Schools were in a commanding position upon the resumption, but with both teams opting to make a host of changes as the minutes passed by, it was expected that the play would start to open up in the second period.
Yet, it was the Schools side – they had two-time All-Ireland-winning Dublin Gaelic footballer Bryan Cullen amongst their technical staff – who continued to dominate proceedings, and thanks to some terrific work by their pack, they were camped in opposition territory for much of the third quarter.
An enterprising move across the Clubs' defensive line led to Stockdale’s hat-trick effort six minutes into the half, and although the outstanding Ulster youngster had to depart the scenes through injury just five minutes later, his team-mates maintained their momentum in his absence.
A fine maul deep inside the Clubs team's 22 on 46 minutes yielded a try from replacement Josh McIlroy, and pacey Rockwell College winger Alan McMahon joined him on the scoresheet nine minutes from time when he evaded a number of challenges before dotting down for his side's fifth try.
To the credit of the well-drilled Ireland Clubs outfit, they battled gamely right up until the final moments of the game.
Young Munster's Ben Betts was desperately unlucky not to secure a late consolation try, but a disciplined Ireland Schools side remained unbreached in the dying minutes.
Referee: Nigel Correll (IRFU)