Ireland 33 New Zealand 24
Coach Nigel Carolan said that the ability of his young men to adapt and think on their feet was a key factor in fashioning an historic victory over New Zealand in the World Rugby Under-20 Championship.
The win, the first ever by an Irish men’s side over New Zealand, leaves Ireland needing a win against newcomers Georgia on Wednesday to seal a semi-final spot for only the second time in the tournament.
Incredible scenes as @IrishRugby U20s beat @AllBlacks U20s in #WorldRugbyU20s. #WALvGEO & #ENGvSCO coming up on SS3 https://t.co/GXTin4DsFp— Sky Sports Rugby (@SkySportsRugby) June 11, 2016
It’s been some fortnight for the Connacht academy manager, many of whose charges helped Pat Lam’s men win the Pro12 title, while on Tuesday evening they came from 17-0 at the end of the first quarter to pip Six Nations Grand Slam winners Wales by 26-25.
Carolan felt they had the measure of the Baby Blacks up front, while their line-speed had them in New Zealand’s faces all day in a gripping contest played in an incessant downpour at the Manchester City Academy Stadium.
It didn't all go Ireland's way. Hooker Adam McBurney was binned for a deliberate knock-on after 18 minutes, with New Zealand's two-try scorer Malo Tuitama escaping sanction for a very similar offence in the second half when the game was hanging in the balance.
And impressive outhalf Bill Johnston, who missed the Six Nations with a shoulder injury, went off a couple of minutes into the second half after suffering another shoulder injury.
“Things don’t always go your way. It’s important you don’t panic and you stick to what you worked on. When Adam went to the bin, yeah they got a try but we worked one back again.
“It sowed the seeds of doubt into New Zealand. They knew they were very much in a game. They had a high-risk strategy. They tried to play ball and we tried to close that off. Our defensive line was excellent.
“Even though we missed so many tackles the work-rate and the character shown by the lads. The desire to stop a New Zealand jersey was massive,” said Carolan.
That desire was obvious from the outset with Johnston giving them a big boost with a third-minute penalty from 40 metres.
Jordie Barrett, younger brother of All Black Beauden, was the key figure in New Zealand opening up a 14-6 lead when McBurney was in the bin, but Barrett ended up with just a two from five kicking return.
In contrast, Ireland landed all seven kicks, four from Johnston and three from his replacement Johnny McPhillips.
The key period in the game came either side of the half-hour mark when Ireland crossed for two training-ground tries, both off drives following penalties down either wing.
Greg Jones got the first of them when he was bundled over after 28 minutes, while McBurney announced his return to the fray by peeling off a maul and getting over in the left corner five minutes from the break.
That left Ireland 20-14 in front at the interval and McPhillips announced his arrival to the game by landing a penalty from 40 metres. Ireland had lost a key performer in Johnston but it was clear McPhillips was going to ensure nothing slackened. It didn’t.
New Zealand showed what they were capable of if they got front-foot ball, spinning it wide for Tuitama to get the first of his tries after 52 minutes.
But, once more, Ireland did not panic. They continued to dominate the set-piece, regularly winning penalties in the scrum, one of which led to the clinching try nine minutes from time when number eight Max Deegan broke from the back to sneak over in the left corner.
McPhillips landed the touchline conversion to make it 30-19, but the world champions weren’t finished and an anxious finish was guaranteed when Tuitama raced over for his second try which Barrett again failed to convert.
That left Ireland six points up with six minutes remaining but they didn’t allow doubt infiltrate their play and they guarded their lead by taking the battle to New Zealand.
A scrum on the 22 yielded by now an inevitable penalty and McPhillips slotted it to make the game safe and spark celebrations in the rain with the few hundred Irish fans which would have done justice to a cup final triumph.
A moment in time for all to savour . . . but not for long for the players, who must quickly turn their attentions to Georgia on Wednesday, with the newcomers pushing Wales all the way after the Irish game before losing 10-9.
SCORERS – Ireland – Tries: G Jones, A McBurney, M Deegan; Pens: B Johnston 2, J McPhillips; Cons: B Johnston 2, J McPhillips. New Zealand – Tries: M Tuitama 2, J Barrett, S Stevenson; Cons: J Barrett 2.
IRELAND: J Stockdale (Belfast Harlequins/Ulster); M Byrne (Terenure/Leinster), S Daly (Cork Con/Munster), C O'Brien (Clontarf/Leinster), H Keenan (UCD/Leinster); B Johnston (Garryowen/Munster), S Kerins (Sligo/Connacht); A Porter (UCD/Leinster), A McBurney (Ballymena/Ulster), B Betts (Young Munster/Munster); C Gallagher (Sligo/Connacht), J Ryan (Lansdowne/Leinster); G Jones (UCD/Leinster), D Aspil (St Mary's/Leinster), M Deegan (Lansdowne/Leinster).
Replacements: V O'Brien (Cork Con/Munster) for Aspil (20-30 mins), J O'Brien (UCD/Leinster) for C O'Brien (27-34 mins), J McPhillips (Queen's University/Ulster) for Johnston (37 mins), V O'Brien for McBurney (63 mins), V Abdaladze (Clontarf/Leinster) for Betts (63 mins) K Brown (Shannon/Munster) for Aspil (64 mins), S O'Connor (Cashel/Munster) for Gallagher (77 mins).
NEW ZEALAND: J Trainor; S Stevenson, P Tomkinson, J Barrett, M Tuitama; S Perofeta, S Nock; A Johnstone, L Apisai, S Kautai; Q Strange, I Walker-Leawere; L Jacobson, M Jacobson, M Mikaele-Tu'u.
Replacements: TJ Va'a for Perofeta (43 mins), J Lowe for Tomkinson (51 mins), A Aumua for Apisai (59 mins), A Fidow for Kautai (59 mins), S Paranihi for Johnstone (67 mins), H Dalzell for Walker-Leawere (70 mins), J Taumateine for Nock (72 mins).
Referee: Craig Maxwell-Keys (England).