Ireland power past the Junior Springboks to earn Under-20 World Championship final place

Richie Murphy’s side held firm in first half before opening up after the break to win handsomely

South Africa 12 Ireland 31

Ireland are through to the final of the World Rugby U20 Championship after stunning the hosts to make it through to next Friday’s decider back at the Athlone Stadium in Cape Town.

It was a game of two contrasting halves from an Irish perspective, the first a homily to bloody-minded defence and a voracious work-rate, the post-interval fare embellished by a more attractive and attuned attacking shape, marshalled with poise and vision by Sam Prendergast. There was virtue in both instalments, one that made for a compelling victory when squeezed together.

Paddy McCarthy, Brian Gleeson and Ruadhán Quinn were exceptional in a monumental performance in the pack to which all eight forwards contributed lavishly. Conor O’Tighearnaigh ran a tight lineout, the scrum demolished their opponents, Fintan Gunne appeared omnipresent, Prendergast’s second-half performance maximised the platform given to him by the pack, while James Nicholson’s brace of tries rewarded an industrious contribution.

A weakness in previous Irish displays had been an underused kicking game to make easy metres, but in the World Championship cup semi-final it was some ill-judged use of the boot that caused them problems. That, and a lack of discipline at the breakdown, where they conceded several penalties.

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Ireland showed their resolve and grit on 20 minutes, defending first a lineout maul and then a series of robust carries from South Africa’s big forwards and their centre Ethan Hooker, to force a turnover. But again, a poor clearance kick handed the home side the possession straight back and it took two thundering hits from Paddy McCarthy to stifle momentum ahead of another turnover.

Establishing field position was an issue for Ireland and when they did manage to put together several phases, a ball carrier would get isolated at the breakdown and the Junior Springboks were able to force penalty turnovers. The was one statistic that summed up the first 30 minutes, South Africa had been in Ireland’s 22 on 10 occasions, whereas Ireland hadn’t managed that feat once.

When Richie Murphy’s side did break that duck the excellent Diarmuid Mangan was denied a try by the television match official, adjudged to have ground the ball short of the line. South Africa were able to relieve the pressure with a penalty, incorrectly awarded, soon after.

Superbly led by Gus McCarthy, Paddy McCarthy, Mangan, Gleeson and Quinn had been diligent and dogged in their defending, scrumhalf Gunne also very effective when defending in the wider channels.

A late hit by Jannes Poitgieter on Andrew Osborne saw the South African receive a yellow card and Ireland immediately took advantage. Prendergast spotted James Nicholson in space out wide, his cross-kick was pinpoint, and the wing had sufficient pace and strength, riding fullback Hakeen Kunene’s despairing tackle to dot down in the corner.

Prendergast’s touchline conversion was a beauty to give Ireland a 7-0 lead which they preserved intact to the interval. Murphy’s side had to mine huge reserves of resilience in that half, occasionally the architect of their own problems, but that grit and determination, the willingness of players to cover for team-mates when the first tackle was missed said a great deal about the spirit.

From an Irish perspective there were issues to resolve, the use of possession, the kicking game, protecting the ball at the breakdown. But Murphy would have been heartened by the scrum dominance and a lineout maul that generated significant metres and that when they played with depth and introduced a little subtlety to their carrying, they broke the gainline.

Ireland conceded two quick penalties but Jean Smith who hadn’t missed a kick at goal in the tournament failed with both. But it mattered less on 47 minutes when scrumhalf Imad Khan finished off an excellent counterattack, although Murphy’s side will have been disappointed with the first-up defence.

The outstanding Gleeson got Ireland back in front, swatting aside a couple of tacklers as he rampaged off the back of a beautifully executed lineout peel to crash over the line.

Prendergast converted and Ireland had a great try-scoring chance when Osborne kicked, chased and charged down. But three metres from the South African line, referee Anthony Woodthorpe awarded a penalty turnover with two South African offences occurring before the ‘not releasing’ call.

It mattered less on 60 minutes when Nicholson grabbed his second try, again from Prendergast’s inch perfect cross-kick. Sam Berman had made a superb break in the build-up and the teenage replacement centre then had an even more lucrative intervention, finishing off flowing Irish handling with a dummy and a handoff to cross for a try.

Prendergast converted and then tagged on a penalty as the Irish scrum eviscerated their Junior Springbok counterparts as Ireland stretched their lead to 31-7. Not even the concession of a late try could deflect from a brilliant afternoon for this remarkable group of players.

SCORING SEQUENCE – 37 mins: Nicholson try, Prendergast con, 7-0. Half-time: 7-0. 45: Khan try, Smith con, 7-7; 49: Gleeson try, Prendergast con, 14-7; 60: Nicholson try, Prendergast con, 21-7; 65: Berman try, Prendergast con, 28-7; 71: Prendergast pen 31-7; 76: Le Roux try, 31-12.

SOUTH AFRICA: H Kunene; J Julius, K Letebele, E Hooker, M Annies; J Smith, I Khan; C Lavagna, J Else, D Heunis; C Le Roux, JF van Heerden; P de Villiers (capt), G van Reenan, C Beets.

Replacements: J Poitgieter for Reenan (HIA, 20 mins); R Izaks for Kunene (h-t); P Ganyane for Lavagna (51 mins); Z Porthen for Heunis (61); SJ Kotze for Else (64); A Ndabambi for Beets (65); D Markus for Annies (69).

Yellow card: J Poitgieter (36 mins).

IRELAND: H McErlean (Terenure); A Osborne (Naas), H Gavin (Galwegians), J Devine (Corinthians), J Nicholson (UCD); S Prendergast (Lansdowne), F Gunne (Terenure); P McCarthy (Dublin University), G McCarthy (UCD, capt), R Foxe (Old Belvedere); C Irvine (QUB), C O’Tighearnaigh (UCD); D Mangan (UCD), R Quinn (Old Crescent), B Gleeson (Garryowen).

Replacements: S Berman (Dublin University) for Gavin (49 mins); E O’Connell (UL Bohemian) for Irvine (64); F Barrett (Corinthians) for Foxe 68 mins; G Hadden (Clontarf) for P McCarthy, Ó Cawley (Naas) for Gunne (both 71); D Barron (Dublin University) for Gleeson, D Sheahan (UCC) for G McCarthy, M Lynch (Dublin University) for Nicholson (all 73).

Referee: A Woodthorpe (England).

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan is an Irish Times sports writer