The Ireland Under-20s produced a Jekyll and Hyde performance as they struggled to see off Italy – 19-13 – in the U-20 RBS 6 Nations tonight.
The Italians fully deserved their 13-6 half-time lead at Donnybrook, Giovanni Pettinelli's try on the half hour coming after Conan O'Donnell was sin-binned.
But a 13-point surge in the third quarter proved enough for Ireland, with Brett Connon landing his fourth successful penalty and converting Shane Daly's well-worked 50th-minute try.
Although they will be pleased to make it back-to-back victories in the Championship (opening their win account at their new Dublin 4 base in the process), Nigel Carolan's youngsters fell well below the standards they set in the second half against England a fortnight ago.
Ireland had to absorb some early pressure from Italy, with a Cillian Gallagher lineout steal and Conor O'Brien clearance kick eventually pushing the blue shirts back.
Ireland's first visit to the Italian 22 yielded points in the 12th minute, impressive full-back Connon landing a straightforward penalty to punish Leonardo Mantelli for going offside.
Italy continued to dominate territory, though, with handling errors letting both sides down during a stop-start opening quarter. A second scrum penalty against tighthead O'Donnell allowed out-half Mantelli to make it 3-all.
Greg Jones' man-and-ball tackle on Pettinelli broke up the Italian momentum, but a promising attack was spoiled by an O'Donnell knock-on in midfield.
Although an improved scrum teed up Connon for his second successful place-kick, 27 minutes in, Italy hit the front soon after through flanker Pettinelli.
Connacht prop O'Donnell paid the price for another scrum penalty, with referee Sam Grove-White reaching for his yellow card. Ireland held out initially from a lineout maul but Charly Trussardi's quick pass from a close-in ruck saw Pettinelli dive low to make it over past John Poland and Gallagher.
Mantelli followed up with the conversion from the right and a central penalty in the 37th minute, punishing blindside Gallagher for what was a harsh decision by Grove-White at a ruck.
The returning O'Donnell got the upper hand on Daniele Rimpelli at a scrum early on the resumption, with Connon duly closing the gap to four points.
O'Donnell increased his influence by winning turnover ball off a loose Italian lineout, the subsequent attacking phases seeing Will Connors and Adam McBurney go close from a couple of pick and goes.
Connon's reliable right boot made it a one-point game in the 50th minute and that all-important try arrived soon after. Trussardi was intercepted by Connors in midfield, he sent Conor O'Brien striding up into the 22 and the Clontarf clubman's slick offload gave his centre partner Daly an easy run-in.
With the rain coming down, Connon's conversion bounced over off the right hand post. O'Brien and the Ulster-capped Jacob Stockdale made further inroads with ball in hand, as the Irish pack – led by captain and Electric Ireland man-of-the-match James Ryan – provided a much improved platform after a sloppy opening 40 minutes.
The hosts maintained a high tempo in and around the hour mark, with Connon and Johnny McPhillips' clever tactical kicking also keeping them in the right areas of the pitch.
Italy had a chance to respond in the 66th minute, their powerful centre Marco Zanon threatening five metres out, but an Andrew Porter tackle forced a knock-on and the home defence held firm.
Nonetheless, they had to endure a helter-skelter finish from Alessandro Troncon's charges, new cap Paul Kiernan throwing an intercept pass that had Ireland scrambling back towards their try-line as Italy failed to capitalise on a glaring overlap.
It took two well-struck kicks from fellow debutant Niall Saunders, who came on to good effect at scrum half, to get the home side back up to the Italian 22. Connon missed a 79th minute penalty attempt on the near left hand side, but it was not needed in the end as Ireland edged their way to a six-point success.
TIME LINE: 12 minutes – Ireland penalty: Brett Connon – 3-0; 20 mins – Italy penalty: Leonardo Mantelli – 3-3; 27 mins – Ireland penalty: Brett Connon – 6-3; 29 mins – Ireland yellow card: Conan O'Donnell; 30 mins – Italy try: Giovanni Pettinelli – 6-8; conversion: Leonardo Mantelli – 6-10; 37 mins – Italy penalty: Leonardo Mantelli – 6-13; Half-time – Ireland 6 Italy 13; 44 mins – Ireland penalty: Brett Connon – 9-13; 50 mins – Ireland penalty: Brett Connon – 12-13; 51 mins – Ireland try: Shane Daly – 17-13; conversion: Brett Connon – 19-13; 79 mins – Ireland penalty: missed by Brett Connon – 19-13; Full-time – Ireland 19 Italy 13
Referee: Sam Grove-White (Scotland)