The Ireland Under-18 Schools team, sponsored by PwC, produced a strong second half performance to run out 39-23 winners over Italy in their opening match of the U-18 International Series in Wales.

Connacht’s Niall Murray started the game in the second row. From Brideswell in Athlone, Co. Roscommon, Buccaneers man Murray attends St Aloysius College, Athlone, and has previously represented the Connacht U18s and the Ireland U18 Clubs team.

Noel McNamara’s side made certain of the win with three tries in the final 14 minutes at BT Sport Cardiff Arms Park. Pres Cork duo Sean French and Billy Scannell both touched down before vice-captain Scott Penny closed out the scoring in the 68th minute.

Centres French and David Ryan, brother of last year’s Ireland Under-20 captain James Ryan, combined for three tries on the day, with St. Michael’s youngster Ryan crossing in the 13th minute.

Ireland were quick to respond to an initial Alberto Rossi three-pointer, as Harry Byrne’s cross-field kick was caught on the full by Ballymena Academy winger Angus Kernohan who passed inside to the supporting Niall Murray and he linked with Ryan to finish off a well-worked try which Byrne converted.

However, Italy displayed a clinical edge of their own when full-back Rossi converted tries from wingers Mattia Giovannini (2- minutes) and Damiano Mazza (27), leaving Ireland with a 17-7 deficit to overcome. A superb late penalty from out-half Byrne made it a seven-point game at half-time.

Within seven minutes of the restart, Ireland had retaken the lead as French and St. Fintan’s winger Darragh Kelly both crossed the whitewash in impressive fashion, with Byrne converting the centre’s 38th-minute effort.

A good kick chase pressurised the Italian defence and the onrushing French gathered the ball over the line to touch down. Kelly then took up the baton, collecting an openside kick from 40 metres out. He stepped inside the cover and although he was tackled just at the line, he reached out to finish off a classy try.

Although the Italians battled back with Rossi maintaining his 100% place-kicking record, landing successive penalties for a 23-22 scoreline, Ireland built for a terrific finish to what was an engrossing and typically hard-fought age-grade international.

French completed his brace in the 56th minute, Ireland building momentum in the Italian 22 before the try was produced after 11 phases. Hooker Scannell followed his school-mate over the whitewash just four minutes later, the pack setting up a lineout drive before a series of pick and goes had the desired result.

Those two tries went unconverted but Ireland sealed the deal with another spell of controlled multi-phase play from the forwards. Industrious flanker Penny broke through to score close to the posts with replacement Ben Healy adding the extras.

Driven on by captain Craig Casey, it was a real squad effort from McNamara’s charges, with some of the replacements having a notable impact and helping to turn the game in Ireland’s favour. The competition for starting places is sure to increase in the coming days as Ireland prepare to tackle England in Caerphilly on Wednesday and tournament hosts Wales in Llanelli on Easter Sunday.

Reflecting on the six-try performance against Italy, Ireland U-18 Schools team manager John McKinney said: “It’s a game from which much can be learned. The boys responded very positively after the experiences gained from their first 35 minutes of international football and adapted effectively during the second half, especially in the last 20 minutes.”

Ireland U18 Schools: Liam Turner (Blackrock College/Leinster); Darragh Kelly (St. Fintan’s School/Leinster), Sean French (PBC Cork/Munster), David Ryan (St. Michael’s College/Leinster), Angus Kernohan (Ballymena Academy/Ulster); Harry Byrne (St. Michael’s College/Leinster), Craig Casey (Ardscoil Ris/Munster) (capt); Niall McEniff (St. Mary’s College/Leinster), Billy Scannell (PBC Cork/Munster), Luke Masters (CBC Cork/Munster), Ryan Baird (St. Michael’s College/Leinster), Niall Murray (St. Aloysius College/Connacht), Fintan Coleman (Crescent College Comprehensive/Munster), Scott Penny (St. Michael’s College/Leinster), Dan O’Donovan (St. Michael’s College/Leinster).

Replacements used: John McKee (Campbell College/Ulster), Josh Wycherley (CC Roscrea/Munster), Tom Clarkson (Blackrock College/Leinster), Martin Moloney (Knockbeg College/Leinster), Azur Allison (Ballymena Academy/Ulster), Ben Healy (Glenstal Abbey/Munster), Eoin Barr (Gonzaga College/Leinster), Jonathan Wren (PBC Cork/Munster).

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