The concession of a late try denied the Ireland Under-18 Clubs team in their first international outing of the season, but a ‘very spirited performance’ from the young squad bodes well for April’s International Triangular Festival in Gloucestershire.
A powerful Italy Under-18 outfit triumphed thanks to replacement Giosuè Zilocchi's 62nd-minute try as the visitors erased an early 10-0 deficit at Ashbourne RFC on Saturday.
Commenting on the squad's first competitive game together, Ireland team manager Dermot Kelly said: “The performance has provided us a very good platform and yard stick on which to build for the tournament with England and France in April.
“The players will have taken some important learnings from this opening game which they can apply going forward. This was a very spirited performance by this Irish team and every player can be proud of how they played.
“The players have developed swiftly under the coaching team led by Wayne Mitchell and his assistants Brendan O'Connor and Jamie Turkington.”
Ireland began brightly and after some sustained pressure, Skerries out-half Ciaran Frawley, who was part of the side that beat Italy in Colorno last year, slotted a sixth minute penalty for a deserved early lead.
Even better followed at the midpoint of the first half when a spell of phase-building was rewarded with a try in the corner from Mullingar centre Sean O'Brien. Frawley landed a terrific touchline conversion for a 10-point advantage.
The Italians responded in strong fashion, notching a well-worked unconverted try through centre Marco Zanon and 10-5 is how it stayed for half-time.
The lively Conor Farrell led the Irish well from the back row, with Exiles scrum half Niall Saunders combining well with Frawley and an industrious home pack, while Saunders and wingers Otto Gray and Peter Howard all made snappy breaks. However, Mitchell's young charges were unable to profit from a strong start to the second period, just failing to score in the corner on two occasions.
The Italian scrum, which was becoming an increasing threat, put a lot of pressure on the Irish set piece and three tactical changes saw Tadgh McElroy, Eoin Corcoran and Jack Aungier brought on in the front row.
The visitors kept pressing and were rewarded with their second try in the 47th minute as winger Peter Mokom ran in an intercept effort which full-back Massimo Cioffi converted.
Ireland hit back quickly, attacking the Italian defence and winning a penalty which Luke Carty – brother of Connacht out-half Jack Carty – sent through the uprights for a 13-12 scoreline.
Italy's stranglehold of the scrum gained them a string of penalties, though, and with good field position, Zilocchi went over close to the posts and Cioffi added the extras.
The Irish bench was unloaded over the remaining minutes and the home side were denied a try-scoring opportunity due to a knock-on just a few metres out. Italy ended the game on the attack with Ireland scrambling well in defence to keep them out.
Looking forward to the clashes with England and France, Kelly added: “The fast turnaround in games will challenge the players both mentally and physically. I believe they will overcome these demands by adhering to the commitments that they've made to each other as a team and to us as a management team.
“As a collective we'll work together to maximise the team's performances. These are players who, individually, have great potential to develop further. It's evident that with the determination and commitment that they have shown to date, we can look forward to very good performances against both England and France.”
The International Triangular Festival will take place at Hartpury College in Gloucestershire over Easter. Ireland will play a France U-18 team (selected from the best players in their regional academies) at Hartpury on Wednesday, April 1 (kick-off 2pm).
The England U-18 Counties team will provide the opposition for Ireland in the festival finale on Saturday, April 4 (kick-off 11am).
TIME LINE: 6 minutes – Ireland penalty: Ciaran Frawley – 3-0; 19 mins – Ireland try: Sean O'Brien – 8-0; conversion: Ciaran Frawley – 10-0; 22 mins – Italy try: Marco Zanon – 10-5; conversion: missed by Massimo Cioffi – 10-5; Half-time – Ireland 10 Italy 5; 46 mins – Italy try: Peter Mokom – 10-10; conversion: Massimo Cioffi – 10-12; 52 mins – Ireland penalty: Luke Carty – 13-12; 62 mins – Italy try: Giosuè Zilocchi – 13-17; conversion: Massimo Cioffi – 13-19; Full-time – Ireland 13 Italy 19
Referee: Vlad Iordachescu (Romania)