Ireland frustrated and disappointed not to have opened Under-20 World Cup with a win

Richie Murphy’s side score six tries but lose a 10-point lead in the final quarter

Ireland Under-20 34 England Under-20 34

Conflicting emotions might have fought for supremacy among the players and coaches in the wake of Ireland’s opening match in the World Under-20 Championship at Paarl Gimnasium in South Africa on Saturday.

It was a match the Irish team should have won but could have lost, nerves frayed to a frazzle by a fraught endgame in which Richie Murphy’s charges repelled a final assault on their line while down a man following centre Hugh Cooney’s sending off for a head-on-head collision in the 75th minute.

The initial feeling of relief at the final whistle would have quickly given way to an element of frustration and disappointment when reflecting on the peaks and troughs of performance. Ireland scored six tries, but a couple of clearcut chances that went abegging will grate, along with eight points left behind from the placekicking tee.

Ireland outhalf Sam Prendergast kicked two from six attempts, the four that he missed eminently gettable despite the cloying underfoot conditions. On another day he would have dispatched them as he demonstrated consistently and capably in the triumphant Six Nations Grand Slam campaign.

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Unfortunately, his figures contrasted sharply with his English counterpart Connor Slevin, who landed all five attempts, including a match-tying conversion from the touchline. This was just a single ruffle in an Irish display that was periodically sloppy and careless, manifest in ill-discipline, inaccuracy of execution, a lack of composure but most of all poor game management.

Murphy’s side vacillated between brilliant and slipshod, occasionally in the same phase of play, but ultimately paid a heavy tariff in not putting the ball in the right areas of the pitch when leading by 10 points with 15 minutes remaining. The circumstances demanded a shift in rugby philosophy but instead they persevered with a more gung-ho approach.

It would be churlish to simply alight on the shortcomings, there were times when Ireland played some wonderful rugby, showed tremendous physical bravery and eye-catching skill sets. Gus McCarthy was a superb leader in a pack that was unflinching in the collisions, Ruadhán Quinn was magnificent during his hour on the pitch.

Ireland’s starting pack and those that joined them were heavily involved in the preamble to all six tries. Fintan Gunne and Prendergast produced some lovely moments, but a mistake was never far away, rushing to execute, pushing a pass, not being accurate at the breakdown, albeit that they can justifiably quibble about some of Luc Ramos’s decisions in that facet of the game.

Cooney was excellent on both sides of the ball, the contributions of the remainder of the backline mirrored the overall performance, very good in spots, patchy at other times.

Ireland’s lack of game time individually and collectively since March was manifest in some of the decision making and ensuing mistakes that undermined their traditional sense of adventure. One of the many qualities of this team is that they retain the courage to adhere to their playing principles and that brought its own reward.

Murphy said: “[We] are a little bit disappointed with how we finished the game, we had opportunities to close [it] out, we weren’t quite able to do that. We were very happy with the level of effort that the players [produced], just needed to be a little bit more accurate in order to finish that game out.

“[In the] early part of the game a couple of mistakes were made but then in the second half of the first half we found our way, getting into our flow and started to play some really good rugby.”

Three first-half tries from Prendergast, George Hadden and the excellent James McNabney should have allowed Murphy’s side a little breathing space on the scoreboard but a hat-trick of missed conversions meant that England were within touching distance, 15-10 at the interval.

Two were the product of tapped penalties, the other had its origin in a lineout maul and Ireland also failed to convert a couple of gilt-edged try-scoring chances; Andrew Osborne needed to be more robust and aggressive to ride Joe Jenkins’s tackle while Diarmuid Mangan failed to spot Gunne in support following a great surging run from the flanker.

Ireland’s start to the second half was even worse that the first, a morass of errors, that saw them cough up 14 points while reduced to 14 men after Mangan was sinbinned for a ruck infringement on the Irish line. From the next sequence of play the England scrum earned a penalty try and then replacement wing Jacob Cusick scored following an Irish turnover.

Murphy admitted: “We started the second half a little bit sloppy [but] we managed to fight back into the game.”

But this young Irish team is not short of character, resolve or talent and they struck back with a beautifully worked try.

Gunne’s pin-perfect crosskick found Quinn, unmarked on the wing, and the flanker raced over. When England lost flanker Greg Fisilau to the sinbin, Ireland crossed for two further tries in four minutes, the first from fullback Henry McErlean and then Cooney finished off another slick move. Prendergast converted both to push his team out to a 34-24 with 15 minutes remaining.

It was Ireland’s to lose and they nearly did, left to rue a raft of mistakes. Slevin kicked a penalty and then a magnificent touchline conversion after Cusick had crossed in the corner for his second try, to make it 34-34.

Murphy said: “I suppose the overall feeling would be frustration.” Not that there’ll be any time to dwell on it as Ireland face Australia, conquerors of Fiji, on Thursday morning.

SCORING SEQUENCE – 3 mins: Slevin pen, 0-3; 11: Prendergast try, 5-3; 21: Hadden try, 10-3; 23: A Opoku-Fordjour try, Slevin con, 10-10; 40 (+1): McNabney try, 15-10. Half-time: 15-10. 49: Penalty try, 15-17. 52: Cusick try, Slevin con, 15-24; 56: Quinn try, 20-24; 60: McErlean try, Prendergast con, 27-24; 64: Cooney try, Prendergast con, 34-24; 67: Slevin pen, 34-27; 69: Cusick try, Slevin con, 34-34.

IRELAND: H McErlean (Terenure); A Osborne (Naas), H Cooney (Clontarf), J Devine (Corinthians), H Gavin (Galwegians); S Prendergast (Lansdowne), F Gunne (Terenure); G Hadden (Clontarf), G McCarthy (UCD, capt), P McCarthy (Dublin University); E O’Connell (UL Bohemian), C O’Tighearnaigh (UCD); D Mangan (UCD), R Quinn (Old Crescent), J McNabney (Ballymena).

Replacements: G Morris (Lansdowne) for Hadden) h-t); C Irvine (QUB) for O’Connell (55 mins); B Gleeson (Garryowen) for Quinn (60); J Nicholson (UCD) for Osborne (71).

Yellow card: D Mangan (48 mins).

Red card: H Cooney (75).

ENGLAND: S Harris; T Elliott, R Ma’asi-White, J Woodward, J Jenkins; C Slevin, C Bracken; A Opoku-Fordjour, F Theobald-Thomas, A Fasogbon; H Cuckson, L Chessum (capt); F Carnduff, G Fisilau, C Cunningham-South.

Replacements: N Jibulu for Theobald-Thomas (46 mins); J Cusick for Jenkins (48); N Michelow for Cuckson (60); L Johnson for Harris (66); A McArthur for Opoku-Fordjour 68, J Halliwell for Fasogbon (both 68); N Thomas for Bracken (73); T Woodman for Cunningham-South (73).

Referee: L Ramos (France)

Yellow card: G Fisilau (60 mins).

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan is an Irish Times sports writer