Tom Willis’ last-minute try ruined the Ireland Under-20s’ final quarter fight-back as England won a titanic World Rugby U-20 Championship play-off 30-23 in awful underfoot conditions in Rosario.
Noel McNamara’s youngsters erased a 14-point deficit with back-to-back tries from Jonathan Wren and replacement Brian Deeny on the 70-minute mark. Ben Healy nailed a conversion tight to the left touchline as part of his 13-point kicking haul.
However, despite losing a third player to the sin-bin – replacement Rusiate Tuima for a high tackle on Deeny – it was 14-man England who produced the stronger finish in the mud-fest as Willis burrowed over in the dying seconds.
Ireland’s only defeat in three meetings with England this season will see them play New Zealand in Saturday’s 7th-8th place play-off at the same Club Old Resian venue (kick-off 3.30pm local time/7.30pm Irish time).
Proud of his team’s efforts amid a 11-strong injury list, captain Charlie Ryan said: “It would have been easy for us just to tap out at 14 down, so really proud of the boys to come back. Unfortunately it didn’t work out for us in the end. That happens in a game of rugby, but really proud of the performance from the lads.
“We’re a confident group, we would have backed ourselves to win this game. Unfortunately it didn’t work out for us. We’ll go again and we’ve one more game to go. 100% we can beat New Zealand.”
Ireland had the lion's share of first half possession and territory but could not take advantage of England's two yellows for forwards Ted Hill and Kai Owen. Instead, Josh Hodge’s well-taken 36th-minute try split the sides at half-time with the English 13-6 ahead.
Healy and influential winger Hodge swapped further penalties before scrum half Sam Maunder used a five-metre scrum to scramble over for England's second try. With key forward Dylan Tierney-Martin sin-binned soon after for a high tackle on Hodge, it was a long way back for Ireland.
A bout of forward pressure led to winger Wren crossing in the left corner, and recent call-up Deeny followed up with a brilliant charge-down effort from 40 metres out. But McNamara's side lost possession from a maul in English territory and replacement Willis had the final say following a barrage of carries and another close-in scrum.
IRELAND U-20: Jake Flannery (Shannon/Munster); Aaron O'Sullivan (UCD/Leinster), Liam Turner (Dublin University/Leinster) (capt), David Ryan (UCD/Leinster), Jonathan Wren (Cork Constitution/Munster); Ben Healy (Garryowen/Munster), Craig Casey (Shannon/Munster); Michael Milne (UCD/Leinster), Dylan Tierney-Martin (Corinthians/Connacht), Charlie Ward (Clontarf/Leinster), Charlie Ryan (UCD/Leinster) (capt), Thomas Ahern (Shannon/Munster), Ryan Baird (Dublin University/Leinster), Ronan Watters (St. Mary's College/Leinster), Azur Allison (Ballymena/Ulster).
Scorers: Ireland: Tries: Jonathan Wren, Brian Deeny; Cons: Ben Healy 2; Pens: Ben Healy 3
Replacements used: Thomas Clarkson (Dublin University/Leinster) for Ward, Josh Wycherley (Young Munster/Munster) for Milne, Angus Kernohan (Queen’s University/Ulster) for O’Sullivan (all half-time), Niall Murray (Buccaneers/Connacht) for C Ryan (43-52, temp sub), Declan Adamson (Clontarf/Leinster) for Kernohan (60-69, temp sub), Brian Deeny (Clontarf/Leinster) for Allison (60), Luke Clohessy (Shannon/Munster) for Watters (80).
ENGLAND U-20: Tom de Glanville (Bath); Ollie Sleightholme (Northampton Saints), Fraser Dingwall (Northampton Saints) (capt), Cameron Redpath (Sale Sharks), Josh Hodge (Newcastle Falcons); Manu Vunipola (Saracens), Sam Maunder (Exeter Chiefs); Kai Owen (Worcester Warriors), Will Capon (Bristol Bears), Joe Heyes (Leicester Tigers), Joel Kpoku (Saracens), Alex Coles (Northampton Saints), Richard Capstick (Exeter Chiefs), Aaron Hinkley (Gloucester), Ted Hill (Worcester Warriors).
England: Scorers: Tries: Josh Hodge, Sam Maunder, Tom Willis; Cons: Josh Hodge 3; Pens: Josh Hodge 3
Replacements used: Olly Adkins (Gloucester) for Sleightholme (31-40 mins, temp sub), Luke James (Sale Sharks) for de Glanville (45), Tom Willis (Wasps) for Hinkley, Adkins for Owen (both 52), Nic Dolly (Sale Sharks) for Capon (60), Rusiate Tuima (Exeter Chiefs) for Kpoku (71), Ollie Fox (Yorkshire Carnegie) for Maunder (75).
Referee: Ben Blain (Scotland)