The Ireland Combined Provinces squad (sponsored by PwC) got a valuable first run-out together, recovering from a 24-point deficit to run an experienced Italian selection close in Parma on Sunday.
IRELAND COMBINED ACADEMIES SERIES – MATCH 1: Sunday, December 10
ITALIA SELEZIONE U-23 45 IRELAND COMBINED ACADEMIES 33, Stadio Nando Capra, Parma
Scorers: Italia Selezione U-23: Tries: Filippo Bozzoni, Penalty try, Damiano Mazza 2, Ratko Jelic, Giuliano Avaca, Matthias Douglas; Cons: Pen try con, Giacomo Da Re 4
Ireland Combined Academies: Tries: Josh O’Connor, Eoin de Buitléar, Ruadhan Quinn, Joe Hopes, Zac Solomon; Cons: James Humphreys 3, Ethan Coughlan
HT: Italia Selezione U-23 24 Ireland Combined Academies 5
Drawing on some of the best talent from within the provincial Academy system, this short pre-Christmas Italy tour – and two more fixtures against the same Italian Selezione Under-23s in Dublin in January – provides the players with the opportunity to work within a national programme.
It is key competitive game-time at an important stage of the season, and their well-drilled Italian opponents boasted 119 United Rugby Championship appearances between them, compared to the Combined Academies’ 34.
With Rugby World Cup squad member Giacomo Da Re featuring at full-back, Italy’s Selezione U-23s built a 24-5 half-time lead, crossing through Filippo Bozzoni and Damiano Mazza (2), along with a penalty try that landed Josh O’Connor in the sin bin.
O’Connor ran in the opening try for Neil Doak’s Ireland youngsters, and they enjoyed a purple patch at the start of the second half as captain Eoin de Buitléar, Ruadhan Quinn and teenage lock Joe Hopes all touched down in a productive 12-minute spell.
James Humphreys’ third conversion edged them ahead at 26-24, and although Ratko Jelic and replacement Giuliano Avaca hit back with converted scores for the Azzurrini, the Combined Academies remained right in the hunt.
19-year-old Ulster Academy hooker Zac Solomon powered over from a lineout maul, closing the gap to 38-33, and he then had a potential match-winning try ruled out by obstruction. A late breakaway effort from Matthias Douglas sealed a 45-33 home win in the end.
The teams will do it all again at Stadio Nando Capra on Friday afternoon (kick-off 2pm Irish time), and those second half improvements definitely bode well for the rematch and the Combined Academies’ home dates in the New Year.
O’Connor did well to cover a dangerous kick and beat the first two chasers, amid a breathless start to the game. The visitors coughed up a free-kick at their first lineout opportunity, but they retained good territory.
Chris Cosgrave, popping up in midfield, flung a long pass out to Hugh Cooney, and also connected with a roaming Quinn on the opposite wing. The Italian selection were well organised in defence though, and Luca Andreani soon won a turnover penalty at the breakdown.
They generated quick ruck ball off a lineout, with Jelic releasing openside Andreani on a blindside break. A penalty put them into try-scoring range, and a few phases later, Jelic exploited space on the blindside as he combined with Da Re to put Bozzoni over in the left corner.
Just as the Combined Academies advanced on the back of Lorcan McLoughlin’s strong carrying, a forward pass halted their momentum. McLoughlin caught the eye again with a superb sidestepping run, but an unfortunate knock-on from Diarmuid Mangan meant the attack went unrewarded.
The Italians absorbed some further pressure, initiated by an O’Connor break off first-phase ball, before being awarded a penalty try. A sharp move off a lineout involved Mazza, and Bozzoni’s kick towards the try-line was knocked out of play by O’Connor, under pressure from two chasers.
A brief consultation between the match officials resulted in a penalty try for the hosts, who now led 12-0, and a yellow card for the Connacht Academy winger. The Azzurrini made their numerical advantage count with two quick-fire tries.
Zebre centre Mazza scored both, the first one coming from a free-flowing backs move which ended with him crossing in the left corner after winger Bozzoni had offloaded out of a double tackle from Humphreys and Rory Telfer.
An offload from Mazza sparked a pacy attack through midfield in the 31st minute, and he followed up to crash over just to the left of the posts after good hands from Alessandro Gesi and Giulio Marini. Da Re’s conversion made it 24-0.
Doak’s young side opened their account just before the interval, with their maul making encouraging metres before the returning O’Connor evaded Mazza’s tackle to score in the right corner. Cosgrave provided the assist with a looping pass out of a tackle.
Just two minutes into the second half, de Buitléar struck for the Irish outfit’s second try. Telfer’s high fielding, combined with out-half Humphreys’ tidy touchfinder from a penalty, set up a powerful lineout drive, and the score was well converted by Humphreys from out wide.
With the Irish lineout working well and the newly-introduced Aitzol King drawing a late tackle, they soon scored again. The forwards carried infield before the impressive McLoughlin took contact, dangling an offload behind him which Quinn deftly managed to hold onto and dot down over the line.
Having reduced the deficit to 24-19, the Combined Academies upped the tempo further with King and Telfer both gaining ground. Lovely hands from Cosgrave and King released Quinn down the right touchline, and from the resulting close-in ruck, Conor McKee fed Hopes to evade Enrico Pontarini’s tackle and touch down.
Humphreys slotted over the conversion to edge his side in front, but it was a brief lead as the Italians scored off their next scrum. Having linked twice with Davide Ruggeri, scrum half Jelic was adjudged to have grounded the ball under a pile of defenders.
Da Re converted and also added the extras to Avaca’s well-taken effort on the hour mark, the replacement out-half bursting onto a Marini offload and jinking his way over from the edge of the Irish 22.
Daniel Hawkshaw and the ever-industrious Mangan led the Irish response, carrying with pace and power to move play back into the Italian 22. A penalty set up another maul opportunity, and replacement Solomon connected with McLoughlin before being driven over the whitewash.
Ethan Coughlan’s conversion made it a five-point game (38-33) with a quarter of an hour remaining. The visitors had some more bright moments as Andrew Osborne broke down the left wing, and a rip in the tackle, a few phases later, saw Solomon win possession back.
An excellent 50:22 kick from Connacht’s Shane Mallon had the Combined Academies pressing for their sixth try. Despite Solomon scoring off the resulting maul, an obstruction call against Daniel Okeke meant the try was not awarded.
Instead, it was the Italians who swept downfield to settle this high-scoring contest in the 77th minute. Following a turnover, the fleet-footed Douglas was fed out wide and he cut past two defenders and collected Mazza’s return pass to gleefully round in behind the posts.
ITALIA SELEZIONE U-23: Giacomo Da Re (Benetton Rugby); Filippo Bozzoni (Zebre Parma), Filippo Drago (Benetton Rugby), Damiano Mazza (Zebre Parma), Alessandro Gesi (HBS Colorno); Giovanni Sante (Montpellier), Ratko Jelic (Zebre Parma); Destiny Aminu (Mogliano Veneto Rugby), Tommaso Di Bartolomeo (Zebre Parma), Riccardo Genovese (Zebre Parma), Enrico Pontarini (Rangers Rugby Vicenza), Riccardo Andreoli (Rangers Rugby Vicenza), Giulio Marini (Mogliano Veneto Rugby), Luca Andreani (Zebre Parma), Davide Ruggeri (Zebre Parma) (capt).
Replacements used: Lapo Frangini (Mogliano Veneto Rugby) for Di Bartolomeo, Alessio Sanavia (Zebre Parma) for Aminu, Enzo Avaca (Mogliano Veneto Rugby) for Genovese, Alessandro Filoni (Sitav Rugby Lyons) for Pontarini, Bradley Henderson (Sitav Rugby Lyons) for Andreoli, Michele Artusio (HBS Colorno) for Jelic, Giuliano Avaca (Mogliano Veneto Rugby) for Sante, Albert Batista (HBS Colorno) for Gesi, Matthias Douglas (Mogliano Veneto Rugby) for Bozzoni.
IRELAND COMBINED ACADEMIES: Chris Cosgrave (UCD RFC/Leinster); Josh O’Connor (Buccaneers RFC/Connacht), Hugh Cooney (Clontarf FC/Leinster), Ben Brownlee (UCD RFC/Leinster), Rory Telfer (Queen’s University Belfast RFC/Ulster); James Humphreys (Queen’s University Belfast RFC/Ulster), Conor McKee (Ballynahinch RFC/Ulster); George Hadden (Garryowen FC/Munster), Eoin de Buitléar (Galway Corinthians RFC/Connacht) (capt), Temi Lasisi (Lansdowne FC/Leinster), Diarmuid Mangan (UCD RFC/Leinster), Joe Hopes (Queen’s University Belfast RFC/Ulster), Daniel Okeke (Shannon RFC/Munster), Ruadhan Quinn (Young Munster RFC/Munster), Lorcan McLoughlin (Queen’s University Belfast RFC/Ulster).
Replacements used: Zac Solomon (Banbridge RFC/Ulster) for de Buitléar, Mark Donnelly (Cork Constitution FC/Munster) for Hadden, Cameron Doak (City of Armagh RFC/Ulster) for Lasisi, Mark Lee (Rainey RFC/Ulster) for Hopes, Ethan Coughlan (Shannon RFC/Munster) for McKee, Daniel Hawkshaw (Buccaneers RFC/Connacht) for Humphreys, Shane Mallon (Galwegians RFC/Connacht) for Telfer, Aitzol King (Clontarf FC/Leinster) for O’Connor, Andrew Osborne (UCD RFC/Leinster) for Cosgrave, Fiachna Barrett (Galway Corinthians RFC/Connacht) for Okeke.