Six Leicester Tigers players were involved in the final evening of the Under-20s Six Nations, with a quintet of England players finishing agonisingly short of a title victory.
England head coach Steve Bates included five Tigers in the matchday 23 for their crunch fixture with Ireland in Coventry with Ben White at scrum-half, Tom Hardwick moving from 10 to 12 after last week’s win over Scotland and Jordan Olowofela switching from wing to full-back. Club colleagues Sam Lewis and Joe Heyes were named among the replacements.
Their Tigers team-mate Tommy Reffell, meanwhile, returned to captain the Wales team for their game against the French in Colwyn Bay.
England started the evening level on points with championship leaders France but knowing that they had to better their cross-channel rivals’ result to have a chance of taking the title.
As it turned out, England did everything they could in recording a 48-15 win over Ireland, but the French got home after claiming their own bonus-point score in the final 15 minutes of their game in Colwyn Bay.
Olowofela was quickly into the action for England, making a saving tackle on Ireland wing Angus Kernohan within reach of the tryline after just five minutes of play, but there was nothing he could do a minute later when Harry Byrne’s cheeky kick in behind the defence put James Hume in to score the opening try of the evening.
England levelled the scores almost immediately with a try from wing Ben Loader, but Hardwick was unable to add the conversion from wide on the left.
An interception try from skipper Tommy O’Brien put Ireland back in front and Byrne added the kick to stretch the margin to 12-5. But play again swung the other way and Olowofela’s scything break through midfield ended with a score for Fraser Dingwall and this time Hardwick levelled the scores at 12-12 with the kick from the right.
Hardwick gave England the lead for the first time with a penalty from 40 metres on 26 minutes but Byrne levelled the scores at 15-15 with a close-range penalty kick just seconds before half-time.
By that stage of the evening, France already had three tries on the board as they led 17-3 in Wales.
England wing Gabriel Ibitoye had a try disallowed by the TMO 10 minutes into the second half, and just a moment later White was denied when he broke through from Ibitoye’s quick throw-in, only to be told the ball had been played from the incorrect place.
But White did not have long to wait for his moment, initiating an attack from his own tryline on turnover ball and then supporting the pace and power of Ibitoye and then showing good speed of his own to run in from halfway with the 7,000-strong crowd cheering him home. Hardwick added the kick to make it 22-15.
Clubmate Heyes joined the action at the restart on 55 minutes and Lewis joined him just moments later to take Tigers representation on the field up to five.
Hardwick almost provided the breakthrough for another score, taking a dangerous line on to a pass from White just 10 metres out, but England spilled ball almost on the tryline.
A desperate tap tackle from Ireland centre Angus Curtis denied Olowofela a score just after the hour mark as the full-back broke free.
But it was Heyes who supplied the all-important bonus-point try, forcing his way past four defenders on the line to reach out and score his first Under-20s try. For good measure, Hardwick added an assured kick from wide on the left as England made it 29-15 and shifted the onus on to France, who were still chasing a fourth try in north Wales.
Further tries from Ibitoye and flanker Josh Basham, both converted by Hardwick, pushed England further in front and they made it 48-15 when skipper Ben Earl powered over on the left.
England were able to celebrate a memorable and impressive victory, though they were into the last minute of their game when news came through that France had finally notched their bonus-point score in Wales to regain their grip on the crown with a 24-3 victory and a better points difference after five games.