Cormac Foley’s 78th-minute try made it an opening night to remember for the Ireland Under-20s at Irish Independent Park as they came from 11 points down to defeat a highly-regarded England outfit 35-27.
It was a breath-taking first fixture, with scores from Cadan Murley, Tom Willis, and Josh Hodge giving England a lead at the break. But the boot of Harry Byrne gave the hosts a one-point advantage with 20 minutes left after Dylan Tierney-Martin’s double and Scott Penny’s score. With seconds left, super-sub Foley secured the victory with a dramatic try in front of more than five thousand supporters in Cork to kick-start their 2019 campaign with a 35-27 win.
It was Byrne who got the first points of the evening from the tee after England were caught holding on, but the visitors responded well and capitalised on an error in the Irish 22. Murley scooped up a loose pass and ran in for the visitors, with Marcus Smith converting. Two minutes later England was 0ver again, Ted Hill with a brilliant offload to Willis who sprinted over the line untouched.
Smith converted to give England a 14-3 lead, before Ireland hit back through the forwards. Pilling on the pressure up front, hooker Tierney-Martin burrowed over to cut the deficit, with Byrne adding the extras. But again England immediately responded, with Hodge taking a high ball and running it straight through excellently.
Smith converted and Byrne added another penalty with five minutes remaining, but there was plenty more action before the break. The hosts made an incisive break in midfield and Penny dived over, with Byrne narrowing the gap to just a point. Smith added three points with his boot to give England a slender half-time 24-20 lead in Cork.
Ireland came racing out of the changing rooms and again the forwards proved their muscle, with Tierney-Martin notching his second off the back of a driving maul to take the lead. Tom Hardwick slotted a penalty to nudge England back in front as he took over kicking duties, but Byrne added his third penalty to nick the lead once more in a thrilling battle.
After 20 minutes of back and forth, with England getting held up on the line and Ireland forcing them all the way back to their own five-metre line, Ireland eventually took their moment. Having been on the pitch for a mere matter of minutes, Foley crossed with seconds left on the clock and Byrne concluded the game with a successful conversion, securing a first Irish scalp of the Championship in dramatic style.
England coach Steve Bates said: “It’s very disappointing to start with a defeat, but I’m most disappointed for the players. They have worked really hard and their reaction to the loss after the game shows how disappointed they are.
“They now have a great opportunity for them to bounce back against France which will be a tough game but ultimately they have learned that if they’re not at their best then teams will put them under a lot of pressure. You have to give credit where it’s due, Ireland absorbed a lot of pressure and capitalised when they got their opportunities and punished any mistakes we made.
“We played too deep in the first half and that gave them the opportunity to put us under pressure and they took their chances when they got them. There were flashes of some very good stuff and we’ve shown that if we create opportunities then we have the talent to finish them, what we didn’t do is look after the ball well enough and we tried to force it a little too much.”
Ireland U20s: Tries: Tierney-Martin 2, Penny, Foley Conversions: Byrne (3) Penalties: Byrne (3)
England U20s: Tries: Murley, Willis, Hodge Conversions: Smith (3) Penalties: Smith, Hardwick