Ireland Under-20s captain Reuben Crothers's broad smile captured the emotional essence, the adrenaline of a five-try victory transferred from performance to celebration. The upshot of a fourth success in the tournament means that Richie Murphy's charges will have a chance to win a Grand Slam when they host Scotland at Musgrave Park next Sunday (5.0).
“We have always been a one-game team, looking to the next one, but obviously now we are gunning for the Grand Slam,” Crothers said. “It is hard to find better supporters than [those at] Musgrave Park. The Cork crowd are unbelievable for us. Hopefully getting the chance to go for glory in front of that crowd will be amazing.”
The portents are promising. The Scots have yet to win a game, and this young Irish team have produced some brilliant rugby during the campaign. Even when periodically undermined by performance imperfections or glitches, they have a happy knack of finding a way to win matches. Ireland afforded England a 10-point start, conceded a soft try before the interval and spurned three nailed-on try-scoring opportunities in the second half that might have caused a less mentally robust team to buckle; but they just shrugged off the setbacks and continued to adhere to their attacking principles.
There was so much to admire, starting with the performance of the forwards in which Rory McGuire, Mark Morrissey and Lorcan McLoughlin were outstanding in a brilliant collective effort from the entire pack. England were bigger but Ireland were better, more effective. The Irish set-piece was pitch perfect – they forced the home side to cough up several lineouts – while the visitors won the breakdown battle and used brain as well as brawn to punch holes. The English backrow will see Matthew Devine in their nightmares, the Irish scrumhalf causing mayhem on the fringes of rucks with his strength and footwork.
Charlie Tector kicked beautifully off the tee and his general game management pushed his team into the right places on the pitch. Jude Postlethwaite and Patrick Campbell were a real handful, as was Chay Mullins before picking up a rib injury. Coaches crave an impact from the bench and that’s exactly what Balbriggan’s Aitzol King provided with two stunning finishes for tries that essentially took the game away from England.
The elements were a factor, something that Crothers touched on. “In the first half we struggled to get out of our own 22, the wind was a lot stronger than it looks. [In] that second half we just tried to take advantage of the wind as much as possible, try to play England in their own 22 and reap the rewards from that. Going into the sheds we were pretty bruised and battered after a physical first half. We talked about the reaction that England were going to have in the first 10 minutes of the second half and we weathered that.”
The contest was delicately poised, 17-17, at the interval; Ireland recovered from trailing 10-0 early on with tries from Devine, a sharp, powerful finish after snaffling a loose ball and another from McLoughlin following a great surge from the excellent James Culhane. Tector chipped in with a penalty and two conversions. McGuire burrowed over from close range as the visitors edged into a 24-17. Tector kicked a penalty, England responded with a try from Cassius Cleaves before King’s two-try tour de force.
The first was executed with glorious training precision. King took replacement scrumhalf Ethan Coughlan’s inside pass following a lineout and showed pace and strength to hold off a couple of tacklers. Five minutes later the Balbriggan wing had another, this with an even better finish; airborne and acrobatic to dot down one-handed in the corner. Tector’s third penalty pushed Ireland out to a 42-22 lead before the home side responded with the game’s final score, a try from Bristol wing Deago Bailey.
Ireland’s thoughts will now turn to the prospect of a Grand Slam, a feat they achieved previously at Under-20 level in 2007 and 2019 – albeit one with a tiny difference as this would be the first one in which they beat France and England away from home during the campaign. Murphy, his assistant coaches and the players will focus on the integrity of their preparation, taking nothing for granted except the assumption that they will need to produce another high-grade display to cap a brilliant campaign.
Scoring sequence: 5 mins: Hendy try, Benson conversion, 7-0; 10: Benson penalty, 10-0; 13: Tector penalty, 10-3; 18: Devine try, Tector conversion, 10-10; 22: McLoughlin try, Tector conversion, 10-17; 30: Ilione try, Benson conversion, 17-17. Half-time: 17-17. 43: McGuire try, Tector conversion, 17-24; 53: Tector penalty, 17-27; 57: Cleaves try, 22-27; 61: King try, Tector conversion, 22-34; 66: King try, 22-39; 71: Tector penalty, 22-42; 74: Bailey try, 27-42.
ENGLAND UNDER-20: G Hendy (Northampton Saints); D Bailey (Bristol Bears), J Cusick (Leicester Tigers), E Grayson (Northampton Saints), C Cleaves (Harlequins); J Benson (Harlequins), S Edwards (Leicester Tigers); F Baxter (Harlequins), J Stewart (Bath), T Hoyt (Leicester Tigers); L Chessum (Leicester Tigers), T Lockett (Northampton Saints); E Richards (Bath), T Knight (Saracens), E Ilione (Leicester Tigers, capt).
Replacements: Will Joseph (London Irish) for Cusick 47 mins; C Cunningham-South (London Irish) for Lockett 47 mins; L Johnson (Newcastle Falcons) for Benson 47 mins; L Brooke (London Irish) for Knight 55 mins; M Summerfield (London Irish) for Hoyt 64 ins; N Thomas (Sale Sharks) for Edwards 69 mins; M Dormer (Newcastle Falcons) for Baxter 72 mins; F Theobald-Thomas (Worcester Warriors) for Stewart 79 mins.
IRELAND UNDER-20: P Campbell (Young Munster); C Mullins (Bristol Bears), J Postlethwaite (Banbridge), B Carson (Banbridge), F Gibbons (UCD); C Tector (Lansdowne), M Devine (Galway Corinthians); J Boyle (UCD), J McCormick (Ballymena), R McGuire (UCD); C O'Tighearnaigh (UCD), M Morrissey (UCD); L McLoughlin (QUB), R Crothers (Ballynahinch, capt), J Culhane (UCD).
Replacements: E Coughlan (Shannon) for Devine 58 mins; A King (Clontarf) for Mullins 60 mins; J Hanlon (Ballynahinch) for McCormick 69 mins; S Wilson (QUB) for McGuire 69 mins; T Butler (Garryowen) for Tector 71 mins; D Mangan (UCD) for McLoughlin; J McNabney (Ballymena) for Morrissey 72 mins; O Michel Lansdowne) for Boyle 75 mins.
Referee: Damian Schneider (Argentina)