by Brendan Cole
Ireland almost pulled off a barely believable comeback in a pulsating final 25 minute spell of their Junior World Cup Pool C encounter with New Zealand but ultimately fell just short by 31-26.
New Zealand were almost out of sight with 25 minutes left, scoring two quick tries during a ruthless spell after half-time to take what appeared a vice-like grip on the match.
But Ireland refused to lie down and tries by Dan Leavy and Ed Byrne, and a brilliant Rory Scannell penalty put them within touching distance of an improbable comeback.
But it wasn’t to be as Ireland’s final assault saw New Zealand win a crucial turnover as they defended their own 22.
Ireland's incredible effort didn't earn them a semi-final spot as, France, who they needed a favour from, lost 19-26 to South Africa. Ireland are now in the 5-9th place play-off matches, starting with a meeting with France next Tuesday
New Zealand looked dangerous from the beginning and Ireland survived conceding points from early incursions only thanks to excellent defending by Rory Scannell, Rory Scholes and Darragh Leader.
But while New Zealand were troubling Ireland with cut-out passes offloads and powerful running, Ireland’s structured play and powerful scrum were proving effective when they had the ball.
New Zealand indiscipline should have seen Ireland record a shot at goal at least in the early stages, but the referee’s decision to end an advantage just as Ireland lost control of the ball saw New Zealand hack the ball out of their own 22 and deep into Irish territory.
In fact, Ireland took the lead against the run of play as over-enthusiastic rucking saw New Zealand penalised near their own 22. With Tom Daly, who had been expected to play a leading role in this match, out injured, Rory Scannell took over kicking duties and duly put the chance over.
New Zealand had a chance to level matters immediately, but out-half Simon Hickey was unable to put over a relatively easy opportunity in a tricky wind and Ireland held on to the lead.
But a high tackle by the otherwise very impressive Leavy gave Hickey another chance and this time he made no mistake and levelled matters.
New Zealand then went ahead, Hickey converting a penalty after Ireland loosehead Peter Dooley was penalised for not rolling away as the ‘Baby Blacks’ went through the phases near the Irish 22.
Dooley almost had the chance to make up for it straight away, but a possible try scoring pass from Leavy to the loosehead was adjudged to be slightly forward after Hickey dropped a routine pass in his own 22.
A strong scrum, one of many on the day, gave Ireland another chance to draw level and Scannell again knocked it over, this time from a more difficult angle. Ireland were let off again when Hickey again put his next kick at goal wide and to the left.
But Ireland had ridden their luck at times and it eventually failed as New Zealand began to play with more patience and control.
This time, Leader’s last ditch tackle was not quite enough to stop the powerful second rower Patrick Tuipulutou from crashing over. Ireland had some relief as Hickey struck the post with his touchline conversion.
And they hit back immediately with a try of their own, Thomas Farrell scooping up a poor pass by Hickey and showing great pace to race the length of the field and score an unlikely try. Scannell’s conversion just went across the posts and wide, but the sides were level again.
But disaster struck before the break, as Ireland conceded another penalty which Hickey kicked, and after being warned earlier in the half, Farrell was yellow carded for another breakdown offence.
New Zealand quickly took advantage in the second half, scoring three tries in quick succession.
First they shifted Ireland from touchline to touchline before their impressive centre Michael Collins put hooker Epalahame Faiva over in the corner, then Visinia smashed through Leader’s tackle after good hands saw the ball shifted quickly and accurately across the backline and finally Faiva scored again after a clever lineout.
Hickey converted one of the three to put New Zealand all but out of sight with 25 minutes left.
But Ireland refused to lie down as several impressive subs came in to re-energise their effort. A powerful scrum followed by a superb break by Farrell brought Ireland into the New Zeland 22 and Ireland kept up the pace of their play to put blindside Dan Leavy over in the corner.
Scannell just missed the conversion, and Ireland were still three scores behind but the try was no token consolation.
Ireland came again, upping the pace of their play and the aggression of their carries to keep New Zealand on the back foot and they eventually got their reward, the excellent substitute Ed Byrne crashing into a tackle and reaching superbly to hit the whitewash which Scannell then converted.
Ireland’s chances were then improved considerably when Nick Grogan was yellow carded for illegal entry into a maul. When Scannell knocked over the penalty shot, Ireland were, improbably, back within five points with 10 minutes left.
Ireland continued to play with great ambition, flashing the ball to the wings and smashing into each contact like it was their last as they sought a winning score. Leader almost sprung the defence late in the game, but a final turnover saw New Zealand hold out and Ireland’s valiant effort at a comeback just fall short.