Italy are very familiar opponents for the Ireland Under-20s (sponsored by PwC), with the sides set to play each for the fourth time in just 14 months as the U-20 Six Nations Championship continues this weekend.
Richie Murphy’s youngsters return to their Cork fortress of Virgin Media Park, the scene of last season’s stirring Grand Slam-clinching win over England, for Friday’s second round clash with Italy (kick-off 7.15pm – live on Virgin Media Two).
The Ireland Under-20s drew full houses of 8,008 in Cork for last year’s home matches against France and England – with tickets for the England game selling out in record time – and big crowds are expected again for their three home fixtures in the 2024 U-20 Six Nations.
Tickets for Friday’s encounter with the Azzurrini are available here from Ticketmaster.ie, and you can also snap up your ticket(s) for the team’s upcoming duels with Wales (Friday, February 23), and Scotland (Friday, March 15).
Ireland’s superb 37-31 victory away to France launched their U-20 Six Nations title defence in fine style. They are fancied to extend their winning run in the Championship to 12 matches this Friday, but Italy always provide a stiff challenge whether in warm-up games or competitive action.
Murphy’s charges had their annual pre-Six Nations run-out against Italy at the UCD Bowl in December, prevailing 35-29 despite a strong second half from the visitors when their scrum got on top amid a raft of replacements.
Munster Academy star Brian Gleeson was not involved in that game, but did face the Italy U-20s twice last season and is anticipating Massimo Brunello’s side to be at their best, and eager to bounce back from a disappointing 36-11 first round defeat to England.
“It’s a fantastic start, to win away to France is probably the hardest result you could face really,” Gleeson told Virgin Media Sport. “I know it’s clichéd, but we’re going to take it game by game.
“It’s a fantastic start but Italy are a great side. We played them twice last year and they gave us problems. They’re very good at set-piece, so we’re at home but we’ve a big task ahead of us. Six-day turnaround, we have it all to play for.”
Gleeson is one of five returning players from last year, and was right in the thick of the action against France in Aix-en-Provence. He notched his ninth try in 11 appearances for the Ireland Under-20s, helping to establish a 17-14 half-time lead.
The Tipperary-born number 8 was the game’s leading ball carrier, making 81 metres from 17 carries, and was Ireland’s second top tackler (13), just behind captain Evan O’Connell (14). He also won three turnovers, including crucial possession that led to Jack Murphy’s final penalty.
Determined to gain some revenge on France after last summer’s World Rugby U-20 Championship final loss, Gleeson admitted: “To be honest, that’s one of the best wins of my career. To win away in France, the atmosphere here was absolutely electric. Unbelievable in fairness to them.
“They’re an incredible side, but we were hurt after the World Cup last year and that was a key message for us this week.
“For me and the rest of the lads on the team (that were involved last summer), we really wanted to get one over on them because losing the World Cup final last year still leaves a mark. Any time you can come here and beat France, it’s unbelievable.”
For the likes of Gleeson and O’Connell, they are now back playing with the team-mates they first experienced age-grade international rugby alongside when lining out for the Ireland Under-18 Schools team in 2022.
Having come up through the age groups together, and playing against each other for their provinces, there is clearly a close bond between the players. Gleeson emphasised this when asked about whether he had to step up as a leader given his senior experience with Munster.
I didn’t feel a responsibility to lead the team because we have 23 leaders. So it’s not just one person. In fairness to this group, we’re so tight.
“We’ve been together for three years now (from U-18 up), we’re all good pals. So, to be honest, playing with this team is unbelievable. We’re all good friends. Winning together is really special.”
Meanwhile, Ireland head coach Murphy was understandably pleased with what was very much a squad effort against France. He was able to blood sixteen new players, and the five returnees all made a big impact in different areas.
Three of them, Danny Sheahan, Gleeson, and Hugh Gavin, scored a try apiece, and O’Connell and Joe Hopes secured three lineouts and one steal each. Player-of-the-match Gavin impressed in attack with six defenders beaten, two clean breaks, and a total of 100 metres made.
Murphy feels the Connacht Academy talent is really coming into his own, saying: “Hugh is an extremely big, strong centre, who has added a lot to his game over the last year in relation to his ball-playing.
“When we saw him play for Connacht U-19s last year, we just knew by him that there was something about him.
“He is a real competitor with a tough edge and he’s a winner. He will have learned a lot from last year, and like the rest of them, very hungry.”
Gleeson was not involved in the Ireland U-20s’ three warm-up games, but his return to the green jersey has been seamless according to Murphy, who gave an insight into what a big presence he has both on and off the pitch.
“Brian is an incredible player. His attitude is so good. He only came back into the 20s last week. He did three days of training with us in Belfast and he trained this week,” he told the Irish Independent.