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Ireland hang on against 14-man Italy to get Six Nations campaign up and running

Noel McNamara’s side were fortunate to escape with the win having led 31-8 just before half-time.
Feb 9th 2018, 9:24 PM 39,807 31

Ireland U20s 38

Italy U20s 34

Ryan Bailey reports from Donnybrook 

IT’S DIFFICULT TO accurately assess this Irish performance given the integrity of the contest changed irrevocably so early in the piece, but even playing with a man advantage for 70 minutes, Noel McNamara’s young side made hard work of it and had to hang on at the death.

James McCarthy celebrates with his teammates Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

The game’s defining moment came as early as the ninth minute when Italy’s early aggression resulted in flanker Jacopo Bianchi inexcusably, and irresponsibly, lifting Jack Dunne a full 180 degrees before driving the Ireland second row head-first into the turf.

After watching the replays on the big screen, referee Dan Jones had no option but to brandish red, and with the game evenly poised at 5-5 at that point, Ireland then took advantage to pull clear through five first-half scores.

But they were made to sweat in the second half as the visitors, spearheaded by out-half Antonio Rizzi, mounted an incredible comeback only to fall four points short.

Victory would not have flattered 14-man Italy, who played all the rugby.

For Ireland, there are huge areas for improvement and it says a lot about how hard they were pushed that the final whistle was met with a roar of relief after Edoardo Iachizzi’s late try brought the visitors to within striking distance.

It wasn’t so much hanging on for dear life but after establishing a 31-8 lead before the break, Ireland were made to sweat and ought to have been comfortable winners on a night when several players stood out, but a sloppy defensive showing, including countless missed tackles, threatened to spoil matters.

Winger James McCarthy scored a double and was Ireland’s standout performer while fullback Michael Silvester and Angus Curtis caught the eye with exciting displays, albeit helped by the wide open spaces created by Bianchi’s early dismissal.

And certainly as far as the visitors were concerned, it was a great shame their hand was reduced so considerably because their maul and scrum was far superior to Ireland’s and even with 14 men, scored five brilliant tries to expose frailties, and sloppiness, in the home defence.

James McCarthy scores his side's fourth try Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

McNamara and Paul O’Connell will have plenty to work on over the next fortnight ahead of the visit of Wales here with Ireland caught narrow on several occasions and were perhaps fortunate to emerge with the points having completely fallen away after the break.

As it was, Ireland had just enough thanks to a ruthless first-half display, during which McCarthy, Hugh O’Sullivan, Cormac Daly and Peter Sullivan all crossed. Leinster academy prop Jack Aungier added a sixth not long into the second period, before Italy came roaring back.

Daly was impressive in the engine room and carried powerfully throughout, while hooker Eoin Clarke — a late call-up for Ronan Kelleher, who was ill — fronted up well and was intelligent around the fringes. Sean Masterson was tireless in his work ethic and was unlucky not to collect the man of the match award, which went to Munster’s McCarthy.

After their slow start in Bordeaux last weekend, it appeared Ireland were going to make it difficult for themselves again early on. Harry Byrne’s attempted pass right was low and flat but Tommaso Coppo was up quickly to intercept and run it home uncontested from 40 yards out.

Italy, having named an unchanged pack from last week, brought a real physical edge to the early exchanges with the blue shirts firing up quickly to hit both man and ball.

From the first scrum of the evening, the visitors produced a powerful shove but Ireland managed to retain possession and when Byrne spread it wide for captain Tommy O’Brien, space opened up in front of Sullivan. The winger’s offload to McCarthy appeared forward but the try stood and Ireland were back on level terms.

And then Bianchi’s moment of madness tipped the balance firmly in Ireland’s favour. Byrne fired another flat pass into Dunne in midfield, with the second row fortunate to escape the spear tackle unharmed.

Michelangelo Biondelli and Sean Masterson Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

From there, Ireland assumed control on the scoreboard and appeared to have the game won by half-time through a quickfire double courtesy of O’Sullivan and then Daly.

After Italy’s recklessness and indiscipline continued with a high-tackle down field, Byrne found a good touch on the far side to give Ireland a solid attacking platform. The rolling maul was compact and powerful, with Clarke controlling things from the back.

The Italian defence initially held firm but Ireland showed patience and composure to recycle and go wide, for scrum-half Sullivan to snipe over from close range, before Daly did the same on the other side after O’Brien started the move from halfway with a glorious tip-on offload.

The visitors briefly stemmed the tide after Aungier was penalised for not binding and Rizzi found his range from the tee, but Ireland pulled away before the break with two further tries.

McCarthy was lively throughout and was rewarded with a second try, albeit courtesy of a fair slice of luck after his chip through appeared to be overcooked, only for the ball to bounce favourably in his direction and then Sullivan finished smartly in this near corner.

But Italy weren’t prepared to roll over. They ended the half on the front foot and a period of sustained pressure on the Irish line saw Niccolo Cannone power over, and while Aungier was never going to be stopped from close range on 42 minutes, the second half belonged to the visitors.

Backed by a loud band of travelling supporters in the stand, as well as the onlooking Conor O’Shea and his coaching team, Italy produced some sensational, free-flowing rugby to reduce the deficit to just one score through Damiano Mazza, Rizzi and then Iachizzi.

Tommaso Coppo celebrates with teammates Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Rizzi’s score was the highlight of a thrilling game as the Azzurri ran it from deep and managed to keep the ball alive with a series of brilliant offloads, before the out-half was sent over in the corner. They scored 19 unanswered points and arguably deserved more for their efforts.

Ireland lacked any sort of intensity and were mightily relieved to escape, with the second-half performance leaving a lot to be desired. Still, five points and their championship is at least now up and running.

Ireland scorers:
Tries: James McCarthy [2], Hugh O’Sullivan, Cormac Daly, Peter Sullivan, Jack Aungier.
Penalties:
Conversions: Harry Byrne [4 from 6]
Italy scorers:Tries: Tommaso Coppo, Niccolo Cannone, Damiano Mazza, Antonio Rizzi, Edoardo Iachizzi.
Penalties: Antonio Rizzi [1 from 1]
Conversions: Antonio Rizzi [3 from 5]

IRELAND U20: 15. Michael Silvester (Paddy Patterson 73′), 14. Peter Sullivan, 13. Tommy O’Brien (captain), 12. Angus Curtis, 11. James McCarthy (Angus Kernohan 78′), 10. Harry Byrne (Conor Dean 57’), 9. Hugh O’Sullivan; 1. Jordan Duggan (James French 74’), 2. Eoghan Clarke, (Diarmuid Barron 56′), 3. Jack Aungier (Tom O’Toole 55’), 4. Cormac Daly, 5. Jack Dunne (Charlie Ryan 76′), 6. Sean Masterson, 7. Matthew Agnew, 8. Jack O’Sullivan (Ronan Foley 40’).

ITALY U20: 15. Alberto Rossi, 14. Simone Cornelli, 13. Michelangelo Biondelli, 12. Damiano Mazza, 11. Tommaso Coppo, 10. Antonio Rizzi, 9. Niccolò Casilio; 1. Danilo Fischetti, 2. Matteo Luccardi, 3. Michele Mancini Parri, 4. Niccolò Cannone, 5. Matteo Canali, 6. Michele Lamoro (captain), 7. Jacopo Bianchi, 8. Lodovico Manni.

Replacements: 16. Niccolò Taddia, 17. Leonardo Mariottini, 18. Guido Romano, 19. Edoardo Iachizzi, 20. Enrico Ghigo, 21. Leonardo Bacchi, 22. Filippo Di Marco, 23. Alessandro Fusco.

Referee: Dan Jones [WRU].

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