Cillian Gallagher leads Ireland U20s out against Italy.

Italy 26-27 Ireland

The Ireland U20s withstood a powerful challenge from Italy at Stadio Enrico Chersoni in Prato before securing their second consecutive one-point victory in this year’s U20 Six Nations Championship.

Connacht and Corinthians back row Cillian Gallagher, from Sligo, captained Ireland with Ballinrobe’s Matthew Burke (Corinthians) coming off the bench to make his Ireland U20 debut.

A brace of penalties from Johnny McPhillips saw the Ireland U20s establish a 6-3 half-time lead, and they made a whirlwind start to the second period with a converted try from winger Jordan Larmour.

St. Mary’s and Leinster ‘A’ starlet Larmour collected his second try of the contest in the 67th minute after Massimo Ceciliani’s maul score, combined with an Antonio Rizzi penalty, had helped Italy to move into the ascendancy at 14-13.

The passionate crowd were treated to three more tries and a yellow card in the fizzing final 10 minutes, Italian centre Marco Zanon’s unconverted effort being cancelled out by Tommy O’Brien’s charge-down score which fellow replacement Conor Fitzgerald crucially converted.

However, Ireland had to dig deep in order to maintain their winning start to the 2017 Championship. Lock Fineen Wycherley’s sin-binning preceded Alberto Rollero’s closing seven-pointer which meant the visitors’ winning margin was the same as last week’s in Cumbernauld.

Attempting to back up that 20-19 success over Scotland, Nigel Carolan’s charges had the better of the early exchanges and a 10th minute penalty from out-half McPhillips nudged them ahead.

However, as the first half wore on, Italy caused numerous problems for the visitors – particularly up front where strong-carrying number 8 Giovanni Licata stood out in a powerful and well-drilled pack.

They had a number of attacking phases inside the Irish 22, building ample pressure through the phases, and it took a last-ditch tackle from Larmour to force Dario Schiabel into touch on 24 minutes.

After further persistence, the hosts deservedly levelled matters with a successful Rizzi three-pointer, but Ireland issued a direct response after drawing a maul infringement. McPhillips converted a 30-metre penalty from the left with consummate ease, which meant that Ireland brought a three-point lead into the break.

Italy did lose Licata to the sin-bin in the 35th minute for side-entry at a ruck, but Ireland’s own maul was unable to do much damage and Larmour had to be quick off the mark again to prevent Italian centre Ludovico Vaccari from going over at the end of a lung-bursting run.

Larmour showed them exactly how to seize a scoring opportunity just a minute into the second period. Italy allowed Jonny Stewart’s box kick to bounce twice near halfway and Larmour gobbled it up at pace and evaded a covering defender to run in an excellent individual score, converted with aplomb by McPhillips.

Nonetheless, Rizzi rewarded the Italian scrum by following up with a 45th minute penalty and further Irish indiscipline led to a close-in lineout drive from which hooker Ceciliani crashed over for a five-pointer, reducing the arrears to 13-11.

Ireland’s scramble defence dug them out of a hole and openside Paul Boyle was at the heart of a rearguard action that saw the Italians held up from a few metres out. A score was coming, though, and the scrum did the hard work for Rizzi’s 64th-minute penalty strike from in front of the posts.

That kick put the Italians ahead for the first and only time, but there were never any sense of panic from Ireland. McPhillips missed a difficult penalty after a strong run from full-back Colm Hogan who, popping up a few phases later, combined with McPhillips to send Larmour darting in from the right wing to complete his very well-taken brace.

McPhillips’ second successful conversion meant that six points separated the sides (20-14), and even though Zanon flew onto a Charly Trussardi pass to dot down for the resilient Italians, Rizzi’s subsequent conversion attempt bounced back off the right hand post.

Rizzi’s half-back partner Trussardi blundered from the restart when his clearance kick was blocked by the onrushing O’Brien who race through to get the touchdown and make an immediate impact off the Irish bench. A nicely-struck converted from the left-footed Fitzgerald proved essential too at 27-19.

Wycherley’s sin-binning for collapsing a maul left Ireland under increasing pressure late on, and another well-executed drive from the home pack finished with a converted try from Ceciliani’s replacement Rollero’s converted try.

Possession was of vital importance now and despite the Irish scrum almost giving way, number 8 Caelan Doris did well to pick up at the base and set up some strength-sapping pick and goes in the hosts’ 22. Italy did threaten one last-gasp breakout but, with Fitzgerald and O’Brien covering the danger, it was not enough to deny Ireland a hard-fought success.

Ireland:¬†Colm Hogan (Dublin University/Munster); Jordan Larmour (St. Mary’s College/Leinster), Gavin Mullin (UCD/Leinster), Ciaran Frawley (UCD/Leinster), Calvin Nash (Young Munster/Munster); Johnny McPhillips (Ballynahinch/Ulster), Jonny Stewart (Queen’s University/Ulster); Joey Conway (UL Bohemians/Munster), Tadgh McElroy (Lansdowne/Leinster), Charlie Connolly (Dublin University/Leinster), Fineen Wycherley (Young Munster/Munster), Oisin Dowling (Lansdowne/Leinster), Cillian Gallagher (Corinthians/Connacht) (Capt.), Paul Boyle (Lansdowne/Leinster), Caelan Doris (St. Mary’s College/Leinster).

Replacements used: Jack Regan (UCD/Leinster) for Dowling (half-time), Adam Moloney (Shannon/Munster) for McElroy, Gavin Coombes (Young Munster/Munster) for Gallagher (both 65 mins), Conor Fitzgerald (Shannon/Munster) for McPhillips, Tommy O’Brien (UCD/Leinster) for Nash, Jack Lyons (Young Munster/Munster) for Hogan (all 71), Rory Mulvihill (UCD/Leinster) for Conway, Matthew Burke (Corinthians/Connacht) for Connolly (both 79).

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