Last season's Ireland Under-18 team were the trailblazers, winning the title in Bucharest thanks to a 31-5 triumph over France, and when the two nations met in a repeat of the 2016 decider, Irish eyes were smiling again as converted tries from Hugo Lennox, Eoghan Barrett and Aaron Sexton saw Ireland retain the prized European trophy.
2017 has already been a brilliant year for the IRFU Sevens programme with the Men's and Women's squads both qualifying for the Sevens Rugby World Cup and finishing second in the Rugby Europe Grand Prix Series, while the Women also had their highest ever finish in the World Sevens Series, and last weekend saw the Ireland U-18 Girls win the UK School Games tournament.
Anthony Eddy's youngsters topped Pool A yesterday, defeating Georgia (26-12) and Luxembourg (54-5) before stumbling against host nation Germany, who won a nail-biting contest 17-14. However, they made sure that was the only blemish in their first ever international tournament together, bouncing back with an unbeaten run on day 2.
Captained by Ballymena's Angus Kernohan, the Ireland U-18s held Spain at arm's length in a 22-0 Cup quarter-final win. They then came from two tries down to overhaul Wales 19-10 in a memorable semi-final fight-back, before putting in their best performance against France who had come into the final undefeated and having only conceded three tries.
Head coach Eddy, the IRFU's Director of Sevens Rugby, was supported in Heidelberg by Joe Lydon, IQ Rugby's Head of International Talent ID and Development, and IQ Rugby Talent ID coach Wayne Mitchell- the squad's assistant coach and team manager respectively. The IRFU's 'IQ Rugby' programme was launched earlier this year to develop, identify and manage overseas Irish qualified talent.
Starting the tournament against Georgia yesterday morning, two tries in each guided Ireland to a well-judged 26-12 win. The game was scoreless - the Georgians soaking up some early pressure - until Pres Bray scrum half Elliott Ryan broke off the back of a scrum on the Irish 10-metre line and used his pace and a clever sidestep to race clear for a superb try which he converted himself.
Ireland scored a second try from deep just a couple of minutes later. After good work in defence from Kernohan forced a forward pass, possession was moved wide from the resulting scrum and the long-striding Sexton showed his sprinting class - he recently won the Commonwealth Youth Games 200 metres gold medal - to speed away from three players, making it 14-0 for half-time.
Munster Academy member James McCarthy went very close to scoring a third try before the break, dribbling through up the left wing but the match officials ruled his effort out for a knock-on. That score came via a an excellent move straight from the restart, Kieran Dunne's strong run and offload releasing Lennox from inside the Irish half, he combined with Barrett and the pair exchanged passes to outfox the scrambling Georgians with CBC Cork's Barrett going in under the posts.
A couple of missed tackles allowed Georgia to hit back almost immediately, reducing the arrears to 19-7, but Ryan completed his brace shortly afterwards as he jinked away from two defenders and rounded a third for another high quality seven-pointer from long range. His conversion made it 16 points for the talented half-back.
Glenstal Abbey's Ronan Quinn pressed for a fifth Irish try, charging up the right wing before being hauled down, but it was a 14-point winning margin in the end as Georgia crossed the whitewash again before referee Dan Maughan blew for full-time.
Ireland scored straight from the kick-off against Luxembourg, Kernohan claiming Eoin Monahan's high delivery and passing for Oran McNulty to break through a tackle on the outside and cross in the left corner. Kernohan ripped the restart away from Luxembourg hands before Quinn's injection of pace saw him scamper away for try number two, converted by Monahan.
Dunne turned provider when his run out to the right and well-timed pass set Sexton free to raid in behind the posts. Monahan converted and also added the extras to Tim Duggan's score, which was created by another fine aerial fetch by Kernohan. Luxembourg exerted some late pressure and pulled a try back, making it 26-5 for half-time.
Barrett added his name to the scoresheet with a cracking solo try, stealing a lineout on halfway and bursting clear to go in under the posts. Just seconds after being introduced off the bench, McCarthy benefited from Kernohan's impressive hands in contact to dart through for Ireland's sixth try.
Monahan tagged on two more conversions for a 40-5 scoreline and there was still time for a late brace of tries, taking Ireland through the half-century mark. The best of them saw replacement Dunne step inside two defenders to score from just inside the Irish half.
Tournament hosts Germany pipped Ireland in the sides' final pool match, using their physicality to press early on and create space on the right wing for two tries and a 12-0 lead. The under-pressure Irish defence leaked a third try before half-time, leaving themselves with a big hill to climb.
Eddy's charges made immediate improvements on the resumption, Sexton doing really well to juggle and hold onto Lennox's well-timed offload before going over unopposed for a try, converted by Ryan. Profiting from an interception by McCarthy, Barrett then sliced through for a second try as Ireland remained on the front foot.
Ireland's best opportunity to hit the front came when Quinn broke into German territory and linked with Lennox, however the latter's pass was just too low for the supporting Kernohan and Germany survived, holding firm for a hard-fought 17-14 success. In the end, Ireland progressed as pool winners on scoring difference, followed by second-placed Georgia with the Germans out of the title running in third.
Kernohan and his team-mates took on Pool D runners-up Spain in this morning's quarter-final clashes. In sunny conditions, Ireland made the brightest of starts with scrum possession turned into a try as Sexton - invited forward up the right touchline - burned off the covering defender. His try was crisply converted by Monahan.
Aggressive in defence and threatening on the counter, Ireland kept Spain pinned back in their own half, Dunne almost nipping through a gap to score. Dunne, Lennox and Sexton did well to retain possession close to the Spanish posts before play was moved quickly to the right where Barrett evaded a defender to notch a gray and push the gap out to 12 points for half-time.
Sean Galvin's well-won penalty at a ruck ended a bout of Spanish pressure, with Ireland proving clinical soon after as Sexton was fed out wide and his strong hand-off gave him the time and space to run in his second try of the game. They wrapped up the result with a fourth try, Dunne showing excellent footwork to round two defenders and score behind the posts.
It was a Celtic derby between Ireland and Wales at the semi-final stage, with almost all of the early action inside Ireland's half. Skipper Kernohan won a crucial penalty at the breakdown right on the Irish try-line, but a missed tackle from Sexton allowed Wales to open the scoring with an unconverted effort out wide.
A clever break down the blindside saw Wales move into a 10-0 lead for half-time and Ireland had it all to do. Their comeback began straight from the restart, the tall figure of Dunne gobbling up possession, offloading out of a tackle to set Lennox dashing into the Welsh half and the Munster sub-Academy player, who started the move, was up in support to take the scoring pass and pull seven points back.
Dunne then provided the assist for Ireland's second try as they edged ahead, getting his hands free despite the presence of two defenders to pop the ball up for the onrushing Monahan to collect and scramble over just to the left of the posts. The CBC Cork student converted his own try for a 14-10 turnaround.
A forward pass and knock-on thwarted replacement Quinn on two occasions as Wales looked vulnerable out wide. Suddenly, as the Welsh threatened to score from deep, Quinn was involved again as his vital tap tackle rescued his side. Given his immense work-rate straight off the bench, it was fitting that the Glenstal Abbey winger settled the issue with an outstanding run up the left touchline, beating one defender just outside his own 22 and having the pace to stay clear of two chasers.
France, Ireland's opponents in the final, had swept all before them and were the tournament's top try and points scorers. Unfortunately, a slightly knock-on prevented Barrett from breaching the French defence right from the kick-off, while Kernohan knocked on a pass from Lennox just 10 metres out from the whitewash.
The French displayed their clinical edge off limited possession and territory, a nice offload releasing their winger for an unconverted try in the right corner and 5-0 lead. Luck was not on Ireland's side as some incisive play between Kernohan and Sexton created an overlap but the supporting Ryan lost control of the ball in the act of scoring.
Nonetheless, a strong tackle from Galvin forced a five-metre scrum just a couple of phases later and Ryan set up Skerries clubman Lennox for a snappy run to the try-line, with the former's conversion making it 7-5. They were rocked back onto their heels, though, when France's kick receiver burst clean through for a sucker-punch score, giving his side a 12-7 interval advantage.
It was nip-and-tuck again when the second half got underway, Ireland starting strongly thanks to Dunne, who was beginning to wield more influence on the ball, and the energetic Ryan and Lennox. The high tempo had the French defence stretched and Barrett showed very good strength to muscle his way over from close range. Ryan's conversion split the sides at 14-12.
Crucially, Ireland managed to string together back-to-back tries as relentless pressure from the Irish defence saw the ball dislodged from French hands and Sexton swooped on it to thunder clear for his sixth try of the weekend. The straightforward conversion was nailed by Ryan.
France were far from finished, a breakaway score bringing them back to within two points. Yet, Gonzaga's Galvin was then able to cover a French chip over the top in the game's final play. He gleefully booted the ball into the crowd to signal full-time and spark wild celebrations amongst his team-mates.
Rugby Europe U-18 Men's Sevens - Full Pools & Results
IRELAND UNDER-18 SEVENS Squad (2017 Rugby Europe Under-18 Men's Sevens Championship, Fritz-Grunebaum-Sportpark, Heidelberg, Germany, Saturday, September 9-Sunday, September 10):
Eoghan Barrett (CBC Cork/Munster)
Kieran Dunne (Shannon RFC/Munster)
Tim Duggan (Crescent College Comprehensive/Munster)
Sean Galvin (Gonzaga College/Lansdowne FC/Leinster)
Angus Kernohan (Ballymena Academy/Ballymena RFC/Ulster) (capt)
Hugo Lennox (Skerries RFC/Leinster)
Eoin Monahan (CBC Cork/Munster)
James McCarthy (Munster Academy/Munster)
Oran McNulty (Millfield School/IQ Rugby)
Ronan Quinn (Glenstal Abbey School/Munster)
Elliott Ryan (Presentation College Bray/Leinster)
Aaron Sexton (Bangor Grammar School/Ulster)
IRELAND UNDER-18 SEVENS Management:
Head Coach - Anthony Eddy
Assistant Coach - Joe Lydon
Team Manager - Wayne Mitchell
Physiotherapist - Lorcan McGee