Joe Schmidt’s men were not the only Irish international team in action over the weekend as the Ireland Under-18 Clubs team also opened their season with an encouraging 46-12 victory over hosts Portugal in Jamor.
The Ireland Under-18 Clubs side came together for the first time under coaches Dan van Zyl and Brendan O'Connor last week and drove on for a fine win with 31 unanswered points during Saturday's second half.
They had to weather an early storm as Portugal crossed for two tries inside the first 13 minutes, but the Irish youngsters showed the necessary composure, tidied up their game and kicked on with some really well-taken scores.
Portugal made a spirited start, launching wave after wave of attacks and forcing a second minute penalty. The resulting lineout was won deep in the Irish 22 and a clever chip over the top from out-half Morais Vasco played in centre José Leal da Costa for the opening seven-pointer.
Ireland's swift response was a penalty from Young Munster full-back Conor Hayes, however little mistakes and the concession of penalties meant that Portugal continued to exert control of possession and territory, working the ball into the wide channels and stretching the Irish defence.
Indeed, despite some encouraging moves, Ireland rarely got out of their half in the first 20 minutes. A very effective scrum and lineout were real positives for van Zyl's charges, along with the strong tackling of backs Kieran Dunne, captain Evan O'Gorman, Hayes and Garrett Fitzgerald.
Nonetheless, Portugal scored their second try following an intercept and foot race which number 10 Vasco won out wide, giving his side a 12-3 advantage. Very good defence prevented the Portuguese from adding to their lead and the Irish players began to grow in confidence as their early errors receded.
With backs and forwards combining to good effect, Hayes had an 18th minute try ruled out for a foot in touch after Morgan Purcell had put him through. The latter's wing colleague Hugh Lane also had a near miss a few minutes later.
The breakthrough finally came on the half hour mark, a Cameron Boon-won lineout and subsequent maul helping to create the opening for Tullow scrum half Fitzgerald to go over from close range. Hayes converted to reduce the arrears to two points.
A storming run from Clonakilty number 8 John Hodnett off the restart set the wheels in motion for a 35th minute try, Ireland using a penalty to work another lineout maul and Wicklow hooker Patrick Nixon was the man to go over in the corner.
With their team now leading 15-12, coaches van Zyl and O'Connor imparted words of wisdom at half-time and they had the desired effect as Ireland duly put some distance between themselves and their determined hosts.
The players came out and pressurised Portugal with very slick back-line play and great support work from the forwards. Jack Walters and Jack McIntosh carried effectively, and the scrummaging of the Irish pack continued to disrupt Portugal's ability to build any phase attack for much of the second period.
The rolling substitutions, agreed before the match, ensured that all players got game-time. The introduction of Martin Moloney for Boon, Caolan Englefield for Fitzgerald and Iwan Hughes for Lane re-energised both back and forward units. Good interplay and support, twelve minutes into the second half, saw Ireland strike. This time centre Dunne dotted down to make it 20-12.
Portugal stuck by their game-plan and kept spreading the ball wide but the Irish defence was fast off the line and drove the home side back. On the hour mark, Ireland U-18 Sevens international Hughes crossed for the first of his two tries. Slick handling started the move and impressive foot work from the replacement saw him go over under the posts. Garryowen's Harry Byrne clipped over the conversion.
From the restart, Ireland controlled the ball through Buccaneers lock Niall Murray and went on the attack. The ensuing surge led to an advanced scrum position, and the ball was soon flashed out to the right wing where full-back Hayes showed his strength to stay in-field and touch down in the corner.
Now leading 32-12, Ireland changed the front row with Harry Donnelly, Daniel Arnold and Conan Dunne all entering the fray and Walters, Nixon and McIntosh coming off after completing a very solid stint together.
Ireland attacked again and a significant carry from the very impressive Hodnett saw him dragged down just inches from the line. The Irish forwards and backs recycled the ball and after three passes out to the other wing, Hughes cut a magnificent angle to complete his brace by the posts, with out-half Byrne converting.
Byrne was quickly involved after the restart was gobbled up, the Munster youngster prodding a neat kick forward as Ireland hunted for their seventh try of the evening. Hughes sped onto the ball and put the supporting Lane through to score at the posts, Byrne duly adding the extras for a 34-point winning margin..
Referee: Afonso Nogueira (Portugal)