Ireland U20s got their World Rugby U20 Championship campaign off to a fantastic start with a brilliant 42-26 bonus point win over England in Santa Fe on Tuesday.
The U20 Six Nations Grand Slam champions capitalised on England’s indiscipline – Aaron Hinkley and Manu Vunipola were sin-binned in both halves and replacement hooker Alfie Barbeary saw red with a reckless 67th-minute challenge on John Hodnett – as they closed out an impressive performance with clinching tries from Ben Healy, who starred off the bench, and Hodnett.
Noel McNamara’s youngsters scored six tries in all, their first two from Jake Flannery and debutant Stewart Moore giving them a 14-13 half-time lead. England led 10-0 and 21-14 at different stages, with winger Ollie Sleightholme touching down twice, but David McCann’sbrace in the third quarter, coupled with a 13-point haul from out-half Healy, steered Ireland home.
Playing with a stiff breeze at their backs, England burst out of the blocks with number 10 Vunipola landing an initial long-range penalty and converting Sleightholme’s well-worked ninth-minute try. The English backs created some space wide on the left before the ball was moved back to the right where Tom Seabrook’s long pass put his fellow winger over.
However, Captain Charlie Ryan inspired Ireland’s response with a charge-down and a follow-up lineout steal, the latter leading to eight phases of the forwards punching it up close to the try-line. It was Craig Casey’s crisp pass which sent his half-back partner Flannery over for a converted score just to the right of the posts.
Openside Hodnett’s breakdown skills saw him win a penalty and a subsequent turnover, but a knock-on from debutant number 8 Azur Allison foiled some promising phases. Despite losing the luckless Allison to injury, the Irish forwards continued to show a strong physical edge with Ryan Baird and hooker Dylan Tierney-Martin to the fore.
Following a Vunipola penalty for a 13-7 lead, a leaping Tierney-Martin brilliantly won the restart and Ireland had England scrambling back to their try-line via a nicely-judged kick from Moore. Indeed, it was the Ulster Academy centre who cleverly dived in from an onside position to touch the ball down at the back of an English ruck. With TMO confirmation of the try, Flannery’s superb conversion nudged his side in front.
However, Ireland were held scoreless during Hinkley’s 34th-minute sin-binning for a dangerous tackle on Angus Kernohan. Replacement Ronan Watters lifted his team-mates with a strong carry and a turnover-winning tackle, while some lovely interplay between Flannery, Moore and Liam Turner showed a glimpse of what the Irish back-line’s threats.
Once more it was pre-match favourites England who quickly got up to speed on the resumption. Unbeaten in the pool stages since 2015, they gained serious momentum with a Vunipola penalty and Sleightholme’s second try from skipper Fraser Dingwall’s cross-field kick. It was centres Dingwall and Cameron Redpath who had made the initial incision in the Irish defence.
Back came Ireland in swift fashion, Vunipola’s yellow for a high shot on Iwan Hughes handing them a gilt-edged opportunity, which they took when a strong maul effort led to flanker McCann expertly twisting and burrowing his way over. Healy’s conversion levelled it at 21 points apiece – only for deft handling from Dingwall, Hinkley and Tom de Glanville to put Seabrook over for five points in the left corner.
The resilience Ireland had shown earlier in the season was evident again, as Healy booted a scrum penalty to the corner and McCann, who only turns 19 on Thursday week, squeezed over against just a few phases later. Credit to Baird, Hodnett, Josh Wycherleyand Watters for making the equally hard yards in the build-up.
Healy’s conversion Ireland back in front and they never looked back, Barbeary’s red for dumping Hodnett onto his shoulders at a ruck allowing Healy to attack the short side of a scrum and dive over in the corner past Ollie Fox’s despairing tackle. The Garryowen and Munster starlet’s terrific touchline kick ensured some vital breathing space at 35-26.
In an end-to-end climax to this Pool B opener, replacement Sean French did really well to deny big lock Joel Kpoku a certain try before combining slickly in attack with Casey deep in England’s 22. The Irish forwards duly piled through – replacements Michael Milne and Watters were both stopped short – and it was workhorse flanker Hodnett who deservedly sealed it with just over five minutes remaining.
ENGLAND U-20: Tom de Glanville (Bath); Ollie Sleightholme (Northampton Saints), Fraser Dingwall (Northampton Saints) (capt), Cameron Redpath (Sale Sharks), Tom Seabrook (Gloucester); Manu Vunipola (Saracens), Ollie Fox (Bath); Olly Adkins (Gloucester), Nic Dolly (Sale Sharks), Joe Heyes (Leicester Tigers), Joel Kpoku (Saracens), Alex Coles (Northampton Saints), Ted Hill (Worcester Warriors), Aaron Hinkley (Gloucester), Tom Willis (Wasps).
Replacements used: Josh Hodge (Newcastle Falcons) for Vunipola (17-25 mins, temp sub), Arron Reed (Sale Sharks) for Seabrook (56), Alfie Petch (Exeter Chiefs) for Heyes, Rusiate Tuima (Exeter Chiefs) for Willis, Hodge for de Glanville, Alfie Barbeary (Wasps/Bloxham School) for Dolly (all 62), Richard Capstick (Exeter Chiefs) for Coles, Dolly for Sleightholme, Kai Owen (Worcester Warriors) for Adkins (all 67).
IRELAND U-20: Iwan Hughes (Ballynahinch/Ulster); Angus Kernohan (Queen’s University/Ulster), Liam Turner (Dublin University/Leinster), Stewart Moore (Malone/Ulster), Jonathan Wren (Cork Constitution/Munster); Jake Flannery (Shannon/Munster), Craig Casey (Shannon/Munster); Josh Wycherley (Young Munster/Munster), Dylan Tierney-Martin (Corinthians/Connacht), Thomas Clarkson (Dublin University/Leinster), Charlie Ryan (UCD/Leinster) (capt), Ryan Baird (Dublin University/Leinster), David McCann (Banbridge/Ulster), John Hodnett (UCC/Munster), Azur Allison (Ballymena/Ulster).
Replacements used: Ronan Watters (St. Mary’s College/Leinster) for Allison (25 mins), Ben Healy (Garryowen/Munster) for Hughes, Sean French (Cork Constitution/Munster) for Moore (both 50), Michael Milne (UCD/Leinster) for Wycherley (68), John McKee (Old Belvedere/Leinster) for Tierney-Martin, Ciaran Booth (Sale Sharks/IQ Rugby) for McCann, Niall Murray (Buccaneers/Connacht) for Baird (all 74), Charlie Ward (Clontarf/Leinster) for Clarkson (79).
Referee: Damon Murphy (Australia)