IRELAND's U-20s will make the long journey home from South Africa this weekend with mixed feelings -- satisfied with the country's best finish at the Junior World Championships, but with a nagging tinge of regret that they could have reached the last four.
It is a measure of the strength of Mike Ruddock's young charges that the tournament wins over England, South Africa, Italy and France, plus the nomination of fly-half JJ Hanrahan for the IRB Junior player of the Year award, was not enough for them.
Yesterday at Newlands, they blew away a French team to finish fifth. Yet, if it wasn't for an imperfect 20 minutes against England, they, and not the Baby Boks, could have been taking on and beating the Baby All Blacks in the marquee event.
While skipper Niall Scannell was happy with the win over France, he knew that it might have been so much more.
"I am delighted, proud of the lads," he said. "We've had a few disappointments this season. In the Six Nations we threw away the Grand Slam and if things had gone a little differently we might have had a semi-final here.
"But the lads kept the heads down, kept working and deserved what they got out there. We needed to do what we did the first day against South Africa and not sit back on it. That level of intensity has to be where we get to every time we play. We let ourselves down in the second half against England in Stellenbosch, we let that intensity drop and we were punished."
Despite the initial disappointment, it is hard not to get excited about this bunch of prospects, particularly the forwards who bullied their opponents in each game.
In Cape Town there was the rare and wonderful sight of an Irish pack driving a French scrum back time after time, while Ulster's Iain Henderson and Leinster's Jordan Coghlan were as abrasive as they have been all tournament.
While Hanrahan deservedly takes the plaudits for his virtuoso displays, it was the pack who gave him front-foot ball. Henderson, in particular, looks ready to don a white jersey now and his performances make the province's decision to sign Nick Williams for two years all the more incredible.
They started slowly yesterday, but despite early French dominance, it was Hanrahan who finally got the scoreboard going for Ireland on 29 minutes when their scrum obliterated the French eight in front of the posts.
He doubled the lead after a raking touch-finder missed its mark, but UCD's Barry Daly forced the penalty and the UL Bohemian man made no mistake.
The fly-half missed a chance to make it 9-0 before the break, but within three minutes of the restart France strayed offside and he took his second bite at the cherry. It could have been more when impressive No 8 Jack Conan made 50 yards from the base of the scrum -- with the help of an exchange with Kieran Marmion -- but Hanrahan's pass didn't go to hand and the chance was gone.
France went down to 14 when Jefferson Poirot was sin-binned and Hanrahan punished them by stretching the lead twice in 10 minutes, as Ireland gave themselves a 15-point cushion.
Les Bleus made a charge and finally got over when Gael Fickou stepped outside Foster Horan and scored, with Enzo Selponi converting, but a final Hanrahan penalty closed the deal and Ireland could celebrate a fine effort.
IRELAND -- P Nelson; B Daly (C Finn 73), S Olding (J Carty 78), C Farrell, F Horan; JJ Hanrahan, K Marmion (L McGrath 62); D Merrey (J Cawley 75), N Scannell (J Rael 73), T Furlong (P Reilly 75); A O'Connor, T Beirne; I Henderson (S Buckley 78), J Coghlan (A Conneely 70), J Conan.
FRANCE -- T Platon; V Martin, J Danty, G Fickou, B Fuster; E Escande (E Selponi 51), T Laranjeira (E Quiniou 51); J Poirot (K Vartanov 71), JC Fidinde (R Carbou 52), P Cotet (J Kazubek 60); P Gayraud (J Aliouat 59), P Jedrasiak; J Kazubek (Custoja 52), K Galletier (A Derrien 25), K Chateau.
REF -- F Patrana (Argentina).