Ireland Under-20s refuse to buckle beneath French onslaught
Dogged side show their character to wear down visitors and earn a shot at history
Scott Penny celebrates Ireland’s win over France. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
It was a phenomenal performance from an outstanding young team that yielded a Six Nations Championship crown, the scalp of the world champions and reigning tournament title holders France and – next week in Colwyn Bay – the chance to win only the second Grand Slam in the history of the Ireland Under-20 team, and in doing so emulate the class of 2007.
Ireland coach Noel McNamara has spoken at length about a tight-knit squad, who demand of each other the standards to drive the group. He also celebrated the character and maturity within the group and a selflessness, where the sums of the parts supersede any individual reputations; all those qualities were in evidence on a monumental night at Musgrave Park.
Ireland were dwarfed physically by France, a visiting team laden with players who have French Top 14 experience. But, as the home side had done in each of their matches to date, they found a way to win – and none epitomised the doggedness more than the smallest player on the pitch, Ireland scrumhalf Craig Casey.
He was exceptional on a night when many would share that billing. It would be possible the namecheck the whole team and replacements, but Josh Wycherley, the backrow, and Jonathan Wren were exceptional. Ireland had a gameplan: they were going to run the legs from their opponents, play the game at a high tempo and see where it took them.
France produced some wonderful rugby, scored some cracking tries, and the home side had to ride their luck a little, but ultimately it was the visitors that bowed the knee first.
The first question asked of this young Ireland team ahead of a ball being kicked was losing their captain and hugely influential centre David Hawkshaw in training midweek. And then, on the day of the match, outhalf Harry Byrne was forced to withdraw.
Sean French and Ben Healy came into the backline in pivotal positions of centre and outhalf and immediately owned their respective jerseys, the free-scoring Cork Constitution winger hugely influential to Ireland’s attacking patterns and best moments, adapting superbly to his new role at inside centre.
A problem for Ireland after a stunning start was that against the world champions, pretty much everything has to be pitch-perfect, so a misfiring lineout, an odd missed touch, brittle defence on the fringes of the breakdown, a pass thrown into touch, gave the French some momentum and allowed them to get possession and position on the pitch.
The French were ruthless for the most part, one glaring aberration aside, and in Louis Carbonel boasted a wizard at outhalf, bamboozling the Irish defence and picking his passes beautifully, gliding through gaps or glorious grubber kicks.
Ireland were on the rough end of some officiating decisions. How the referee can permit France to give away four penalties within six metres of the visitors line and not give a yellow card beggared belief, especially when there were two neck-high tackles thrown in.
Even when the fates conspired horribly against the home side and the ball popped off a ruck via an Irish boot inside the French 22, with the visitors going the length of the pitch to score a try, McNamara’s side refused to buckle.
They kept coming back, kept playing rugby, never doubted themselves and reaped the ultimate reward for courage in adversity.