By Dave Mervyn
Conceding 17 points in the opening 21 minutes, the Ireland Under-20s gave themselves too much to do in this evening's World Rugby U-20 Championship tie as they lost to Georgia for the first time in three meetings at this level.
A bruising pool campaign came to a disappointing end for Noel McNamara's youngsters in Narbonne where they were beaten 24-20 by the Junior Lelos, who led 17-8 at half-time thanks to converted tries from Arsen Machaladze and Sandro Svanidze (with a terrific intercept score).
Ireland matched Georgia's three-try tally with late efforts from replacements Cormac Daly and Jakub Wojtkowicz, adding to Conor Dean's first half touchdown, but a 43rd-minute breakaway try from out-half Tedo Abzhandadze, who played for the Terenure College U-20s this season, secured a well deserved victory for the Georgians.
Captain Caelan Doris was again Ireland's standout player and the result leaves the number 8 and his team-mates battling to avoid relegation in next week's 9th-12th place play-offs.
They were seeded 10th after the pool stages and will face 11th-ranked Scotland at Perpignan's Stade Aimé Giral on Tuesday (kick-off 4pm local time/3pm Irish time), with the winners meeting either Georgia or Japan
Kerry native Jack Daly and Sligo prop Jakub Wojtkowicz, two of the battle-hardened squad's injury replacements, made their Ireland U-20 debuts as both sides chased their first victory of the tournament. Anyone who watched Ireland's hard-fought 24-18 play-off success against Georgia in Tbilisi knew the class of 2018 had a big battle on their hands
A frustratingly familiar pattern in Ireland's campaign in France is falling behind to early scores and they did again, leaking turnovers to the hungry Junior Lelos and giving them field position. They took full advantage when Montpellier starlet Gela Aprasidze's neat inside pass sent lock Machaladze powering over for an opening 10th-minute try.
Aprasidze converted and then swapped penalties with Dean, who lifted Ireland with a well-struck 47-metre place-kick, but Georgia continued to win the collisions with the likes of Tornike Jalagonia, the team's physical enforcer in recent matches, and Sandro Mamamtavrishvili both laying down a marker with big tackles.
Although Mamamtavrishvili went too high and earned a yellow card for a hit on Ireland full-back Peter Sylvester, the Georgians stung the 1/4 pre-match favourites with a second try while down to 14 men. James Hume's pass in the Georgian 22 was picked off by Svanidze who had the pace to break clear and gleefully dive in under the posts.
Aprasidze added the extras to extend the lead to 14 points, before some decent phase-building from Doris and company saw Ireland press in attack. Just past the half hour mark and following a prolonged spell in and around the Georgian line, Dean managed to step inside a defender to register an unconverted try.
It was a much-needed score for Ireland who had been sloppy up to that point with numerous handling errors, and the hope was that they could regroup at half-time with input from coaches McNamara, Paul O'Connell and Ambrose Conboy. However, Georgia continued to show the greater physicality, skill and ingenuity, opening up the second period with a cleverly-worked third try.
They profited from an overlap to attack from deep through hard-running centre Giorgi Tsiklauri. He drew in a defender to release Deme Tapladze and the winger's kick infield set up Abzhandadze to finish a classy score which was converted by his ever-influential half-back partner Aprasidze.
Ireland were disjointed in their attempts to respond, and Doris' disappointment was obvious when he made a break out wide but lacked support and the opportunity was lost. Tighthead Luka Japaridze was to the fore as Georgia began to hammer home their advantage at scrum time, a worrying sight for the Irish pack with a full quarter still to play.
Encouragingly, McNamara's charges did lift the intensity and force the issue as their bench players began to make an impact. Sligo prop Wojtkowicz joined fellow new cap Jack Daly on the field in the closing stages, but Ireland's accuracy continued to be slightly off as a Jonny Stewart try from a maul was ruled out for what was adjudged to be a forward pass from Doris.
There were near misses for both sides late on when another TMO decision denied Jack Dunne a try and Otar Dzagnidze was unable to turn a intercept effort into another opportunist score for the buoyant Junior Lelos. Ireland will at least take some momentum into next Tuesday's play-offs thanks to a late two-try salvo, lively replacement Cormac Daly carrying strongly to score following a quick tap and UCC prop O'Connor crashed over from an 81st-minute maul to gain a losing bonus point.
TIME LINE: 10 minutes - Georgia try: Arsen Machaladze - 0-5; conversion: Gela Aprasidze - 0-7; 13 mins - Ireland penalty: Conor Dean - 3-7; 16 mins - Georgia penalty: Gela Aprasidze - 3-10; 19 mins - Georgia yellow card: Sandro Mamamtavrishvili; 21 mins - Georgia try: Sandro Svanidze - 3-15; conversion: Gela Aprasidze - 3-17; 32 mins - Ireland try: Conor Dean - 8-17; conversion: missed by Conor Dean - 8-17; Half-time - Ireland 8 Georgia 17; 43 mins - Georgia try: Tedo Abzhandadze - 8-22; conversion: Gela Aprasidze - 8-24; 77 mins - Ireland try: Cormac Daly - 13-24; conversion: Harry Byrne - 15-24; 80+1 mins - Ireland try: Jakub Wojtkowicz - 20-24; conversion: missed by Harry Byrne - 20-24; Full-time - Ireland 20 Georgia 24
IRELAND U-20: Peter Sylvester (UCC/Munster); Peter Sullivan (Lansdowne/Leinster), Tommy O'Brien (UCD/Leinster), James Hume (Banbridge/Ulster), Sean O'Brien (Clontarf/Leinster); Conor Dean (St. Mary's College/Leinster), Hugh O'Sullivan (Clontarf/Leinster); Jordan Duggan (Naas/Leinster), Diarmuid Barron (Garryowen/Munster), Jack Aungier (St. Mary's College/Leinster), Matthew Dalton (Malone/Ulster), Jack Dunne (Dublin University/Leinster), Aaron Hall (Ballynahinch/Ulster), Jack Daly (Garryowen/Munster), Caelan Doris (St. Mary's College/Leinster) (capt).
Replacements used: James McCarthy (UL Bohemians/Munster) for O'Brien (45 mins), Harry Byrne (UCD/Leinster) for Dean (56), Matthew Agnew (Ballymena/Ulster) for Hall (59), Cormac Daly (Clontarf/Leinster) for Dalton (62), Jonny Stewart (Queen's University/Leinster) for O'Sullivan (64), Dan Sheehan (Dublin University/Leinster) for Barron, Jakub Wojtkowicz (Sligo/Connacht) for Duggan, Jakub Wojtkowicz (Sligo/Connacht) for Aungier (all 70).
GEORGIA U-20: Beka Mamukashvili (Lelo Saracens); Deme Tapladze (Lelo Saracens), Sandro Svanidze (Armazi Marneuli), Giorgi Tsiklauri (Jiki Gori), Otar Dzagnidze (Aia Kutaisi); Tedo Abzhandadze (Aia Kutaisi), Gela Aprasidze (Montpellier); Guram Gogichasvili (Racing 92), Levan Papidze (Lelo Saracens), Luka Japaridze (Lelo Saracens), Beka Saghinadze (Lelo Saracens) (capt), Arsen Machaladze (Aia Kutaisi), Sandro Mamamtavrishvili (Lelo Saracens), Archil Abesadze (Lelo Saracens), Tornike Jalagonia (Jiki Gori).
Replacements used: Tengiz Gigolashvili (Armazi Marneuli) for Abesadze (39 mins), Lasha Lomidze (Aia Kutaisi) for Svanidze (half-time), Kote Marjanishvili (Locomotive Tbilisi) for Tsiklauri (63), Giorgi Nutsubidze (Jiki Gori) for Gogichasvili, Lasha Jaiani (Exeter Chiefs) for Mamamtavrishvili (both 64), Gia Kharaishvili (Armazi Marneuli) for Japaridze, Tengiz Zamtaradze (Lelo Saracens) for Papidze (both 65). Not used: Luka Dvalishvili (Armazi Marneuli).
Referee: Jamie Nutbrown (New Zealand)