Nigel Carolan’s reign as Ireland Under-20 head coach got off to a very positive start as his young charges ran in seven tries to beat Italy 47-15 in tonight’s Six Nations opener.
The quality of rugby produced was a credit to both teams as the muddy surface and wintry weather made for heavy underfoot conditions, with piles of snow surrounding the pitch in Biella.
Given the greasy ball and the fact that the Ireland Under-20s only scored seven tries in the entire Championship last year, this was very much a confidence-boosting result for Nigel Carolan's new-look side.
The Italians were at their liveliest early on, stunning Ireland with a third minute try from flanker Dennis Bergamin and they also created a lovely score out wide for winger Luca Sperandio in the 32nd minute.
However, the visitors' superiority up front was telling as flankers Josh Murphy and Rory Moloney collected a couple of tries from first half mauls, Garry Ringrose created a well-taken Greg O'Shea try and hooker Zack McCall's late charge-down effort made it 28-15 for half-time.
With Ross Byrne (pictured above) and captain Nick McCarthy directing operations from half-back and the well-drilled front five giving Ireland an enviable set piece platform, especially at scrum time, Ireland went on to dominate both possession and territory in the second half.
Lovely hands from Byrne and replacement Joey Carbery put full-back Billy Dardis over for a 45th minute try. Byrne hit his only missed conversion of the night, but he was back on target entering the final quarter after McCarthy grounded the ball from close range.
As the Italians tired and Ireland's eager bench became a factor, a tremendous lineout maul from outside the hosts' 22 finished with replacement lock Cian Romaine crashing over beneath the posts. Byrne's simple conversion completed a very professional 32-point victory for Carolan's side.
It had all started so well for Italy. Scrum half Luca Petrozzi made a break his head coach Alessandro Troncon would have been proud of in his pomp and his equally well-timed pass sat up invitingly for Bergamin to run in and dive over by the posts. Maicol Azzolini converted for a 7-0 lead.
Crucially, Ireland wasted little time in responding. A series of lineouts launched them forward and after Byrne knocked a penalty to touch on the right, a powerful maul rumbled over in the corner with his UCD and Leinster colleague Murphy getting the touchdown.
Byrne's successful conversion was cancelled out by a well-struck Azzolini penalty, but Ireland were beginning to tick in attack and Ringrose was close to grounding a well-placed kick through from the increasingly influential Byrne.
On the quarter hour mark, Ringrose, a Junior World Player of the Player nominee last year, showed his class on a clever left wing dart. He slipped out of an initial tackle in the 22 and offloaded out of a second one as his inside pass released the supporting O'Shea for another converted try.
The hard-grafting Irish pack gained good yardage through pick and goes towards the end of the first quarter, however a couple of lineout errors robbed them of scoring positions in sight of the Italian try-line.
O'Shea's searing pace was evident as he chased down a Byrne dink towards the left corner and forced full-back Giacomo de Santis to concede a five-metre lineout. Ireland retained possession from touch and a well-organised maul sprung Buccaneers clubman Moloney (pictured above) over from a deserved seven-pointer.
Despite the difficult conditions, both sides were keen to go wide when opportunities arose and Azzolini's intelligent pass created an overlap on the right where Enrico Lucchin put Sperandio over for a neatly-taken unconverted try.
O'Shea had to come off after shipping a hard tackle, but there was still time before the break for a fourth Irish try. McCall managed to block Petrozzi's attempted box kick and having gathered the ball, the Queen's student displayed impressive footwork to step inside the covering de Santis and make the line ahead of the retreating Yannick Agbasse.
Byrne added the extras and it was his long skip pass, five minutes into the second period, that paved the way for try number five. Replacement Carbery's delayed delivery was inch perfect for the onrushing Dardis to finish in the right corner, rewarding the forwards for an initial series of ground-gaining carries in midfield.
It was all Ireland as they put the workmanlike Italians through plenty of punishing phases. Winger Jack Owens just ran out of space near the right touchline following good link-up play again from Leinster duo Carbery and Dardis.
The Irish forwards shoved the Italian scrum backwards to earn a 61st minute penalty which Byrne knocked to touch. The home side defended well from the lineout, but the ever-alert McCarthy (pictured below celebrating with Fergal Cleary) twisted out of two tackles to stretch for the line and score in clinical fashion. Byrne landed a fine conversion from wide out on the left.
There seemed to be more scores in Ireland and they duly notched a seventh try with just two minutes remaining, Romaine getting into position at the back of the maul as the Italian forwards were mercilessly driven back behind their posts.
TIME LINE: 3 minutes – Italy try: Dennis Bergamin – 5-0; conversion: Maicol Azzolini – 7-0; 6 mins – Ireland try: Josh Murphy – 7-0; conversion: Ross Byrne – 7-7; 11 mins – Italy penalty: Maicol Azzolini – 10-7; 16 mins – Ireland try; Greg O'Shea – 10-12; conversion: Ross Byrne – 10-14; 28 mins – Ireland try: Rory Moloney – 10-19; conversion: Ross Byrne – 10-21; 32 mins – Italy try: Luca Sperandio – 15-21; conversion: missed by Maicol Azzolini – 15-21; 38 mins – Ireland try: Zack McCall – 15-26; conversion: Ross Byrne – 15-28; Half-time – Italy 15 Ireland 28; 45 mins – Ireland try: Billy Dardis- 15-33; conversion: missed by Ross Byrne – 15-33; 62 mins – Ireland try: Nick McCarthy – 15-38; conversion: Ross Byrne – 15-40; 78 mins – Ireland try: Cian Romaine – 15-45; conversion: Ross Byrne – 15-47; Full-time – Italy 15 Ireland 47
Referee: Dan Jones (Wales)