No. 3 above is Sligo’s Conan O’Donnell
Match Report courtesy of the IRFU
France 11 Ireland 24
The Ireland Under-18 Schools team outscored France by three tries to one in wet conditions in Plewiska this afternoon as they qualified for the FIRA/AER Under-18 European Championship final.
Sean O’Connor’s fifth-minute try from a lineout maul set Ireland on their way to a well-deserved 24-11 win, which sets up an Easter Saturday showdown with England in Wronki (kick-off 4.30pm local time/3.30pm Irish time).
Noel McNamara’s young side mastered the Polish wind and rain to continue Ireland’s fine record of reaching European finals at this age-grade, with backs Jacob Stockdale and Matthew Gilsenan also touching down.
Irish teams have been runners-up on four occasions in the FIRA/AER U-18 European Championship (2007, 2008, 2010 and 2012), while the class of 2011, which included current senior internationals Robbie Henshaw and Stuart Olding, won the tournament in France three years ago.
McNamara’s charges were clinical in attack today, building a 17-11 lead while playing into a strong wind in the opening half.
Gilsenan, who shifted to centre with Jimmy O’Brien starting in the number 10 jersey, had a fine game and kicked nine points in difficult conditions.
There were a number of heroes in the Irish pack, marshalled excellently again by lock James Ryan, and the back row of Will Connors, Johnny Guy and number 8 Max Deegan were particularly effective as a unit.
Ireland had to show huge grit in defence as the athletic French outfit forced the issue early in the second half.
But they managed to hold them scoreless and Gilsenan’s converted effort booked their place in the Championship decider against defending champions England, who beat Wales 11-9 in the other semi-final.
Ireland made early inroads in their game, carrying strongly around the fringes and kicking a close-in penalty to touch. Captain Ryan rose to claim the five-metre lineout and his second row partner O’Connor came up with the ball after the Irish forwards had driven over the try-line.
The vocal Irish support cheered a well-struck conversion from Gilsenan, but France were quick to respond through a penalty from their out-half and captain Anthony Belleau.
Ireland showed further promise with a strong scrum and a half-break from Gilsenan, however they were caught napping at a short lineout as the French hooker Yohan Beheregaray took a return pass to gallop down the left touchline and crash over in the corner.
The conversion was missed by Belleau, leaving France with a 8-7 lead – but that was to be the only time that they were ahead in the match.
Ireland hit back straight from the restart as the impressive Deegan broke through and some clever offloading released Stockdale for his third try of the tournament, charging in from his left wing berth.
Gilsenan smacked over the 16th minute conversion for good measure, and Ireland’s confidence continued to grow as full-back Jack Power covered a dangerous attack, France missed a penalty and tighthead prop Conan O’Donnell enjoyed a ding-dong battle with his scrum opponent Quentin Walcker.
Belleau closed the gap to 14-11 after Ireland were penalised for crossing in midfield, but Ryan and his team-mates stayed composed and focused on their individual roles.
A terrific man-and-ball tackle from loosehead Andrew Porter inspired Ireland for a strong finish to the first half, with Gilsenan slotting a three-pointer after good carries from Connors and Power.
Either side of the break, Ireland showed their ability to force turnovers with the choke tackle technique – no doubt sharpened up by forwards coach Brian Robinson – winning back possession on three occasions in quick succession.
There were turnovers and knock-ons from both sides in a scrappy period of play, but France were beginning to make more use of their territory as the rain came down.
Their winger Karim Qadiri had a try ruled out in the left corner for an earlier infringement. Ireland had to show immense resolve as they were pinned back in their 22, with a clearance kick charged down and the referee siding with France in a series of tightly-contested scrums.
Aggressive and tenacious defending from Ryan and his pack won a crucial turnover on the Irish line. The ball was cleared to touch and a subsequent scrum penalty helped the Irish youngsters lift the siege.
It was then Ireland’s turn to attack as Gilsenan dinked a kick to touch on the right with the resulting French lineout, in their 22, ruled crooked.
Scrum half Rowan Osborne used quick ruck ball astutely as Ireland probed for an opening and it almost came with direct running from excellent centre Colm Mulcahy and flanker Connors.
O’Brien did well to retrieve a loose ball and Ireland kicked a subsequent penalty to touch, chipping away at the French defence until right on the hour mark when Gilsenan spotted a gap to go over on the left.
The try scorer followed up with another pinpoint conversion – five metres in from the touchline – and the 13-point deficit, with time running out, looked too much for the French to overhaul.
Les Bleuets gave it their all as they tried to unlock Ireland’s disciplined defence, but McNamara’s side contained them in their own half for much of the closing stages.
The replacements also made their mark, Paul Kiernan getting over a ruck ball to force a penalty and hooker Hugo Kean adding to a reinforced scrum as Ireland saw out a deserved victory.
Referee: Fergus Kirby (England)
Conan’s father Cathal O’Donnell watches on as Ireland beat France to secure a place in Sat’s Elite Countries Schools European Final