Ireland’s U20 Grand Slam dreams fade against England despite gutsy draw

Excellent Luke Murphy injury-time try, converted by Sean Naughton, means championship will go down to final weekend

England Under-20 32 Ireland Under-20 32

Ireland’s Grand Slam dreams didn’t survive as they searched for a 14th consecutive victory, but Richie Murphy’s side showed tremendous resolve to eke out a draw, the excellent Luke Murphy’s injury time try, converted by Sean Naughton ensuring that the Under-20 Six Nations will go down to the final weekend.

Both sides, they drew in the World Cup during the summer, will be tortured by what might have been, opportunities that went abegging, little mistakes here and there and points left behind. Ireland captain Evan O’Connell admitted: “It was one of the most physical games I have played in my life. We are disappointed not to win but pleased to come back and get the draw.”

Ireland survived the initial scrum buffeting but not the second wave from the bench, got after England’s lineout and played some great attacking rugby underpinned by some great individual efforts. The pack were excellent to a man, Danny Sheahan, Bryn Ward, Alan Spicer and Murphy putting in a huge shift.


Outhalf Jack Murphy had a brilliant game in general play, Wilhelm de Klerk added a touch of class and Hugo McLaughlin was outstanding in attack.

Ireland suffered the worst imaginable start, a missed tackle, and a knock-on, handed England a scrum on their opponents’ 22. The home side won a penalty, kicked to the corner and a shift drive from the maul led to a try for captain Finn Carnduff, which Sean Kerr converted.

A kick that went out on the full and a pilfered lineout underlined Ireland’s nervy opening but Murphy’s penalty on eight minutes reduced the deficit to 7-3. However, within three minutes they gave Kerr another chance from the kicking tee and the centre landed it with aplomb.

The Irish discipline was really poor, five penalties conceded in the first 13-minutes, three at rucks for not rolling away. They need to get out of their own way. And then they did, spectacularly.

Despite their travails this young Irish group doesn’t lack character, courage, or talent as they demonstrated on 15-minutes, Murphy’s beautifully flighted cross-kick found his buddy from primary school, Finn Treacy and the wing left English outhalf Josh Bellamy grasping at air with a lovely in-and-out move to dot down under the posts.

Ireland’s ability to get McLaughlin away on edge was underpinned by superb long passing from Murphy, Hugh Gavin, and Wilhelm de Klerk but the mistakes kept coming; fortunately, the home side were a bit loosey-goosey too, handling errors costing them some decent field position deep in the Irish 22.

The visitors though were starting to find their rhythm, the scrum was holding up admirably, they forced three turnovers at the lineout, and topped off those little wins with a big one, a humdinger of a try. McLaughlin wreaked havoc on one wing, and then Murphy’s superb cut-out pass found Treacy who gave his fullback Ben O’Connor a try-scoring pass.

Flanker Bryn Ward also deserves credit for his line break in the build-up. Murphy may have missed the difficult conversion, but his line-kicking was wonderful, a paean to great ball-striking. Another Irish breakdown offence gave Kerr a chance to reduce the deficit and he duly obliged but it was the visitors who led 15-13 at half-time.

The returning teenager Alan Spicer was superb for Ireland, the pack worked hard, the scrum apart from the first one was robust in its defiance and when given any platform the Irish backline was able to create space on the edges. When maintaining a high tempo in possession, Ireland looked capable of defusing the England blitz defence.

Discipline at the breakdown needed to improve as did some of the first up tackles but the visitors were in the mix. O’Connor’s break should have led to Ireland’s third try but his pass to McLaughlin was high and behind him, but it mattered less when the former Gonzaga pupil got the try he deserved soon after.

Murphy kicked a penalty to the corner; the forwards made the hard yards and then the Irish outhalf fired a tracer pass to the unmarked McLaughlin. The Irish wing was soon away again but the home side scrambled to survive.

England scored a try through Ollie Spencer, Ireland responded with their fourth and bonus-point try from replacement hooker Henry Walker but a spiralling error-rate, many basic, and a recurrence of discipline issues allowed England to draw level through a converted try from Kane James.

England’s forward replacements made a huge impact, winning scrum penalties, collisions on the gain-line and their maul forced the visitors to cough up penalties. Ben Waghorn’s try looked to have won it three minutes from the end, brilliantly converted from the touchline by Kerr but McLaughlin’s break and Murphy’s finish, converted by Naughton, two minutes into injury time rescued a draw the visitors deserved. Unbowed and unbeaten.

Scoring sequence – 3 mins: Carnduff try, Kerr conversion, 7-0; 8: Murphy penalty, 7-3; 11: Kerr penalty, 10-3; 15: Treacy try, Murphy conversion, 10-10; 28: O’Connor try, 10-15; 35: Kerr penalty, 13-15. Half-time: 13-15. 47: McLaughlin try, 13-20; 55: Spencer try, 18-20; 63: Walker try, 18-25; 68: James try, Kerr conversion, 20-20; 77: Waghorn try, Kerr conversion, 32-25; 80 (+2): Murphy try, Naughton conversion, 32-32.

England: B Redshaw (Newcastle Falcons); T Cousins (Northampton Saints), B Waghorn (Harlequins), S Kerr (Harlequins), A Willis (Sale Sharks); J Bellamy (Harlequins), A McParland (Northampton Saints); A Opoku-Fordjour (Sale Sharks), J Oliver (Newcastle Falcons), B Sela (Bath); O Sodeke (Saracens), J Kpoku (Racing 92); F Carnduff (Leicester Tigers, capt), H Pollock (Northampton Saints), N Michelow (Saracens). Replacements: G Makepeace-Cubitt (Rams) for Willis halftime; J Isaacs (Saracens) for Oliver 48 mins; O Spencer (Newcastle Falcons) for Bellamy 48 mins; K James (Exeter Chiefs) for Pollack 47 mins; S Kirk (Bath) for Opoku-Fordjour 57 mins; James Halliwell (Bristol) for Sela 57 mins;, Z Carr (Harlequins) for Sodeke 73 mins;, B Douglas (Newcastle Falcons),,

Ireland: B O’Connor (UCC); F Treacy (Galwegians), W de Klerk (UCD), H Gavin (Galwegians), H McLaughlin (Lansdowne); J Murphy (Clontarf), O Coffey (Blackrock College); A Usanov (Clontarf), D Sheahan (Cork Constitution), J Boyd (QUB); A Spicer (UCD), E O’Connell (UL Bohemian, capt); J Hopes (QUB), B Ward (Ballynahinch), L Murphy (Shannon). Replacements: S Edogbo (UCC) for Spicer 59 mins; P Bell (Sale Sharks) for Boyd 62 mins; H Walker (QUB) for Sheahan 62 mins; B Howard (Terenure College) for Usanov 73 mins; S Naughton (Galway Corinthians) for Murphy 78 mins.

Referee: Reuben Keane (Australia).

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan is an Irish Times sports writer