The Ireland Under-20s paid the price for a nightmare first quarter during which they conceded 26 unanswered points, a sturdy platform on which New Zealand secured a 40-17 victory in today's 7th-8th place play-off at the World Rugby U-20 Championship.
Ireland were actually the better team for much of the final hour in Rosario, stringing together three tries either side of half-time including an outstanding 50th-minute team score which was finished off in the left corner by flanker Ryan Baird, who had another terrific game.
Baird's effort built on tries from burrowing front rowers Josh Wycherley and Dylan Tierney-Martin, but 26-17 is as close as Noel McNamara's side could get. The beefy New Zealand pack forced clinching tries through Tamaiti Williams and Shilo Klein, adding to that clutch of early scores from Etene Nanai-Seturo (two), Oliver Norris, Leicester Fainga'anuku.
Still, eighth place represents Ireland's best World Rugby U-20 Championship finish in three years, and McNamara's talented squad coped admirably with an injury list which stretched into double figures by the final week. They end the season as U-20 Six Nations Grand Slam Champions and with big hopes that many of this team's exciting prospects will make it in the professional ranks.
It was captain Charlie Ryan's second and final year with the Ireland U-20s, but nine of his team-mates in Argentina are eligible again for this grade next season. He said afterwards: "We're disappointed with that last game. We just really didn't show up for the first half - and you do that against New Zealand and you lose. But proud of that second half performance from the lads, they really dug in.
"I'm proud of (how we played) the whole tournament. A lot of stuff didn't go our way but really proud of the way the lads stuck in and gave it their all. I couldn't have asked for more from them.
"Injuries are always going to happen, you've just got to deal with them the best way you can. I think we did, to be fair. We just needed to show up in that first 40 minutes. Unfortunately we didn't today, but really proud of the lads digging in. No matter how many injuries we had, we kept faith and I'm really proud of the boys."
Despite some promising early phases which included a big turnover-winning tackle from workhorse flanker Ronan Watters, Ireland fell behind to Nanai-Seturo's sixth-minute try. Taufa Funaki's kick over the top left otherwise-excellent full-back Max O'Reilly exposed and the Super Rugby-capped winger Nanai-Seturo swooped on a favourable bounce to score.
Out-half Rivez Reihana converted and also added the extras to prop Norris' opportunist effort as he pinched a ball which was ruled to be out of an Irish ruck and ran in from the edge of the Irish 22. With the Baby Blacks regularly achieving gain-line success, quick hands from centre Billy Proctor soon put Nanai-Seturo over in the right corner.
A flat-looking Ireland continued to struggle, coughing up possession from an overthrown lineout, and a subsequent penalty gave the Kiwis prime position. Their forwards put them within striking distance before busy winger Fainga'anuku battered his way over just to the left of the posts.
The final 10 minutes of the first half saw Ireland turn the tables, though, with their pack getting on top. Important turnovers from Angus Kernohan and Tierney-Martin allowed them to build from deep, the lively Ulster winger impressing with a weaving run from his own 22 and a subsequent high catch.
McNamara's youngsters began to exploit the space out wide, allied to Baird and Thomas Ahern's strong carrying past halfway. A Tierney-Martin knock-on at a maul ruined a gilt-edged opportunity, but Ireland bounced back with a scrum penalty and then New Zealand coughed up two more penalties for offside and a high tackle. Wycherley, Ryan and Cormac Foley were all stopped short just a couple of metres out.
Staying patient, Ireland's hard work eventually paid off when they used further set piece pressure to grind down the defence and loosehead Wycherley plunged over past his opposite number Norris in the 39th minute. Jake Flannery missed the conversion and, frustratingly, a further try-scoring went a-begging as New Zealand managed to disrupt a late maul before half-time.
New Zealand centre Proctor's binning for a high tackle did offer Ireland a route back on the resumption, and they were now playing with much-improved width as the silky running of Foley and O'Reilly caused some damage. The forwards added to that and ever-willing hooker Tierney-Martin succeeded in muscling in under the posts. The conversion from Flannery cut the gap to 14 points.
It was helter-skelter stuff as O'Reilly and Craig Casey were quick off the mark to send Ireland flooding forward again, with Baird also embarking on a barnstorming burst from further out. It was from a kick receipt in his own half which Liam Turner launched Ireland's best attack of the tournament, the ever-present centre showing great fight in contact to make it up towards halfway.
Brilliant hands from second rows Ryan and Ahern, with the latter supplying a lovely offload to Wycherley, set the wheels in motion for Ireland to surge up the left touchline as the prop linked with the athletic Baird. He was closed down but managed to connect with scrum half Casey who kept the ball alive after he was tackled short and got his pass away for Baird to gleefully plunge over.
Some resilient defending prevented the Baby Blacks from answering back, as Ireland sacked a lineout maul and then showed their eagerness to run the ball from far out as Kernohan had a couple of runs out of the 22 again. It was New Zealand full-back Cole Forbes who came up with a big play for his team, collecting Flannery's chip and kicking through himself to force a five-metre scrum.
The momentum slipped from Ireland's grasp when that hard-earned field position led to 134kg-powerhouse prop Williams ploughing in under the posts with 13 minutes remaining. The Baby Blacks went on to seal the result with a sixth and final try despite Williams seeing yellow for a high tackle on Jonathan Wren. Hooker Klein was driven over from a well-executed 72nd-minute maul.
TIME LINE: 6 minutes - New Zealand try: Etene Nanai-Seturo - 0-5; conversion: Rivez Reihana - 0-7; 9 mins - New Zealand try: Oliver Norris - 0-12; conversion: Rivez Reihana - 0-14; 13 mins - New Zealand try: Etene Nanai-Seturo - 0-19; conversion: missed by Rivez Reihana - 0-19; 21 mins - New Zealand try: Leicester Fainga'anuku - 0-24; conversion: Rivez Reihana - 0-26; 39 mins - Ireland try: Josh Wycherley - 5-26; conversion: missed by Jake Flannery - 5-26; 40+1 mins - New Zealand yellow card: Billy Proctor; Half-time - Ireland 5 New Zealand 26; 43 mins - Ireland try; Dylan Tierney-Martin - 10-26; conversion: Jake Flannery - 12-26; 50 mins - Ireland try: Ryan Baird - 17-26; conversion: missed by Jake Flannery - 17-26; 67 mins - New Zealand try: Tamaiti Williams - 17-31; conversion: Rivez Reihana - 17-33; 72 mins - New Zealand try: Shilo Klein - 17-38; conversion: Rivez Reihana - 17-40; 74 mins - New Zealand yellow card: Tamaiti Williams; Full-time - Ireland 17 New Zealand 40
IRELAND U-20: Max O'Reilly (Dublin University/Leinster); Angus Kernohan (Queen's University/Ulster), Liam Turner (Dublin University/Leinster), Cormac Foley (St. Mary's College/Leinster), Rob Russell (Dublin University/Leinster); Jake Flannery (Shannon/Munster), Craig Casey (Shannon/Munster); Josh Wycherley (Young Munster/Munster), Dylan Tierney-Martin (Corinthians/Connacht), Thomas Clarkson (Dublin University/Leinster), Charlie Ryan (UCD/Leinster) (capt), Thomas Ahern (Shannon/Munster), Ryan Baird (Dublin University/Leinster), Ronan Watters (St. Mary's College/Leinster), Brian Deeny (Clontarf/Leinster).
Replacements used: Azur Allison (Ballymena/Ulster) for Deeny (59 mins), Michael Milne (UCD/Leinster) for Wycherley, Jonathan Wren (Cork Constitution/Munster) for Russell (both 66), Niall Murray (Buccaneers/Connacht) for Ahern, Luke Clohessy (Shannon/Munster) for Baird, Ben Healy (Garryowen/Munster) for O'Reilly (all 68), John McKee (Old Belvedere/Leinster) for Tierney-Martin (72).
NEW ZEALAND U-20: Cole Forbes (Bay of Plenty); Etene Nanai-Seturo (Counties Manukau), Billy Proctor (Wellington), Quinn Tupaea (Waikato), Leicester Fainga'anuku (Tasman); Rivez Reihana (Auckland), Taufa Funaki (Auckland); Oliver Norris (Waikato), Shilo Klein (Canterbury), Fletcher Newell (Canterbury), Cullen Grace (Canterbury), Tupou Va'ai (Taranaki), Kaylum Boshier (Taranaki) (capt), Jeriah Mua (Bay of Plenty), Simon Parker (Waikato).
Replacements used: Taine Plumtree (Wellington) for Boshier (30 mins), Tamaiti Williams (Canterbury) for Newell (51), Leroy Carter (Bay of Plenty) for Funaki, James Thompson (Waikato) for Va'ai (both 58), Rob Cobb (Auckland) for Norris (68), Kaliopasi Uluilakepa (Wellington) for Klein, Dallas Mcleod (Canterbury) for Tupaea (both 72), Va'ai for Mua (73), Fergus Burke (Canterbury) for Reihana, Klein for Nanai-Seturo (both 77).
Referee: Andrea Piardi (Italy)