Ireland U-20s 10 England U-20s 14
The Ireland Under-20s outperformed their English counterparts in a pulsating encounter but just fell short of a final round win at a wind-hit Donnybrook.
It was England’s gritty defence that guided them to a 14-10 victory and their first Six Nations Grand Slam at this level since 2011, however Ireland’s performance was hugely encouraging ahead of the summer’s World Rugby U-20 Championship.
In the end, the hosts’ failure to score tries from a first half purple patch and a frenzied finish from their forwards, who were held just over the line past the 80-minute mark, was their undoing.
A converted try just before half-time from hooker Henry Walker gave the visitors a flattering 14-3 lead, adding to an earlier maul effort from lock Jack Nay.
Ireland could and perhaps should have been level at the internal, however they failed to force a try from a sustained bout of pressure in the English 22.
Luck was on England’s side as French referee Pierre Brousset failed to sin bin flanker Tom Curry for a blatant foot trip, but Bill Johnston’s 40th-minute penalty did at least get Ireland on the board.
Despite playing into a blustery wind in the second half, it was Ireland who looked the more likely scorers and they were inches away from scoring from a powerful maul.
Replacement Gavin Coombes’s 64th-minute try, converted by Johnston, had Nigel Carolan’s youngsters right back in the hunt. Ireland were rock solid in defence - they are the only team not to leak a try-scoring bonus point to England this year - but their inability to turn pressure into points ultimately let them down.
Ireland were on the back foot for the opening 10 minutes, their defence holding firm from a couple of five-metre scrums and centres Gavin Mullin and Ciaran Frawley were both strong in the tackle.
England captain Zach Mercer was prominent as a ball carrier and almost scored from an opportunist attack on the left. Ireland’s first serious attack came from a Jordan Larmour break from deep, and a subsequent maul offered some promise.
England broke the deadlock towards the end of the first quarter, a decoy move from a lineout leading to second row Nay burrowing over wide on the left with Max Malins adding an excellent conversion.
Indiscipline from the visitors invited Ireland forward with a brilliant touchfinder from Johnston setting up a lineout five metres out. They worked the ball infield through meaty carries from Oisin Dowling, Fineen Wycherley and Joey Conway, however the table toppers thwarted them with a turnover just a metre out.
Sustained pressure from the Irish pack saw them hammer away close to the English line. They won a free-kick and two penalties in scoring range, although Brousset’s failure to yellow card Curry for a foot trip on Caelan Doris denied them a numerical advantage.
Ireland’s decision not to take the points did not pay off as England showed impressive resilience in defence, winning a relieving scrum penalty from the referee despite loosehead Ollie Dawe not driving straight.
Clever running from Calvin Nash, Frawley and Larmour sparked the home attack, with Coombes also making a strong impact off the bench, before crossing let England off the hook just metres from their own line.
Just when it looked like a well-struck Johnston penalty would be the final scoring act of the first half, Mercer and Malins injected the necessary spark into a late attack and Walker took a great line onto Harry Randall’s flat pass to raid in behind the posts. Malins converted for a 14-3 lead.
Ireland did well to retain possession and make metres on the resumption, however it was tough going as they faced into a blustery wind.
Tommy O’Brien and Nash were busy on both wings, but handling errors blighted Ireland’s progress near halfway. Once again it was Larmour who lit up the attack, his slick entry into the line and offload to Mullin leading to a penalty on the English 22-metre line.
England benefited from the referee’s decision-making once more when he failed to go up to the TMO after Ireland had mauled their way over the whitewash, and then he gave the visitors a scrum penalty despite the ball popping out of the set piece. He also missed a neck-high tackle on Mullin by Malins.
Ireland’s build-up play continued to look sharp, Doris and O’Brien combining on the hour mark to bring them up to the 22. Again, though, an offload was forced and a knock-on handed possession to England.
All of Ireland’s endeavour finally gained some reward with 16 minutes remaining. Larmour posed a threat with ball in hand, gaining good yardage in the 22 before England were caught offside twice. The Irish forwards barged up close before Coombes muscled in under the posts, supported by Wycherley.
Johnston comfortably converted to cut the gap to four points and England lacked composure in their attempts to respond, Randall and Malins twice kicking the ball dead and a knock-on coming from a cross-field kick.
It was all set up for a grandstand finish, with reserve half-backs Conor Fitzgerald and Jack Stafford directing operations behind a never-say-die set of forwards. A barnstorming maul drove Ireland up the right touchline before a series of pick and goes had England back-pedalling, although Ireland were without a clinical edge when it mattered most.
HT: Ireland U-20s 3 England U-20s 14
Ireland U-20s: Try: Gavin Coombes; Con: Bill Johnston; Pen: Bill Johnston
England U-20s: Tries: Jack Nay, Henry Walker; Cons: Max Malins 2
TIME LINE: 18 minutes - England try: Jack Nay - 0-5; conversion: Max Malins - 0-7; 40 mins - Ireland penalty: Bill Johnston - 3-7; 40+2 mins - England try: Henry Walker - 3-12; conversion: Max Malins - 3-14; Half-time - Ireland 3 England 14; 64 mins - Ireland try: Gavin Coombes - 8-14; conversion: Bill Johnston - 10-14; Full-time - Ireland 10 England 14
IRELAND U-20: Jordan Larmour (St. Mary's College/Leinster); Tommy O'Brien (UCD/Leinster), Gavin Mullin (UCD/Leinster), Ciaran Frawley (UCD/Leinster), Calvin Nash (Young Munster/Munster) (capt); Bill Johnston (Garryowen/Munster), Jonny Stewart (Queen's University/Ulster); Joey Conway (UL Bohemians/Munster), Tadgh McElroy (Lansdowne/Leinster), Charlie Connolly (Dublin University/Leinster), Fineen Wycherley (Young Munster/Munster), Oisin Dowling (Lansdowne/Leinster), John Foley (Shannon/Munster), Paul Boyle (Lansdowne/Leinster), Caelan Doris (St. Mary's College/Leinster).
Replacements: Ronan Kelleher (UCD/Leinster), Greg McGrath (Lansdowne/Leinster), Matthew Burke (Corinthians/Connacht), Jack Regan (UCD/Leinster), Gavin Coombes (Young Munster/Munster), Jack Stafford (Shannon/Munster), Conor Fitzgerald (Shannon/Munster), Colm Hogan (Dublin University/Munster).
ENGLAND U-20: Tom Parton (London Irish); Joe Cokanasiga (London Irish), Dominic Morris (Saracens), Will Butler (Worcester Warriors), Sam Aspland-Robinson (Harlequins); Max Malins (Saracens), Harry Randall (Gloucester); Ollie Dawe (Bristol), Henry Walker (Gloucester), Ciaran Knight (Gloucester), Jack Nay (Saracens), Nick Isiekwe (Saracens), Tom Curry (Sale Sharks), Ben Curry (Sale Sharks), Zach Mercer (Bath) (capt).
Replacements: Jamie Blamire (Newcastle Falcons), Ralph Adams-Hale (Saracens), Joseph Morris (Worcester Warriors), Justin Clegg (Worcester Warriors), Josh Bayliss (Bath), Alex Mitchell (Northampton Saints), Theo Brophy Clews (London Irish), Max Wright (Yorkshire Carnegie).
Referee: Pierre Brousset (France)