An epic World Rugby U20 Championship opener in Georgia ended in a tale of two kickers as Italy rescued their first ever U20 win over Ireland from the jaws of defeat, prevailing 22-21 in dramatic circumstances.
The Azzurrini's place in the history books was confirmed after Ciaran Frawley narrowly missed a long range penalty with the last kick of the game at Kutaisi Stadium. Massimo Cioffi's conversion of his own try, four minutes earlier, proved to be the match-winning score.
Both sides experienced the full gamut of emotions throughout and Ireland, coached for the first time by Peter Malone, had a gritty comeback victory within their grasp. Calvin Nash crossed for two early second half tries and penalties from Conor Dean and Frawley made it 18 points without reply, erasing a 15-3 half-time deficit.
However, Italy, who were one-point losers to Ireland during the Six Nations, conjured up a terrific 76th minute try through full-back Cioffi and it was the underdogs - priced at 17/2 before kick-off - who held on in a nerve-jangling climax. They were deserving winners given their fiery first half exploits which included tries from forwards Danilo Fischetti (10 minutes) and Jacopo Bianchi (16).
Down a number of frontliners due to injury, Ireland initially got off to a good start in slippery conditions, centre Frawley's offload and a half-break from Jack Kelly setting up a tricky eighth-minute penalty which debutant out-half Dean nudged wide.
Giovanni d'Onofrio's clever kick downfield into open territory then set up a frantic kick chase which had Frawley scrambling to dot down past his own try-line. However, Gavin Coombes' pull-back on d'Onofrio was highlighted by TMO Jon Mason and with the penalty setting up a close-in lineout, prop Fischetti proved unstoppable from a well-worked maul.
The game's opening try went unconverted from the left wing and Ireland's attempts to respond quickly were thwarted, Italy's line-speed in defence forcing errors with centre Marco Zanon particularly impressive with his tackling.
Try number two followed for the Azzurrini on the quarter hour and it was a beautifully-executed effort, Cioffi claiming Antonio Rizzi's chip over the top, avoiding Jonny Stewart's challenge and offloading for flanker Bianchi to finish off to the right of the posts.
At 12-0 down, Munster-capped winger Nash increased his influence with a couple of threatening runs out wide, but Italy's try-scoring prop Fischetti won turnover ball to relieve the pressure. Ireland came with a second wave, aided by the impact of hooker Ronan Kelleher off the bench and three carries from Fineen Wycherley, although the latter's second row partner Oisin Dowling knocked on as he tried to dive over the top of a ruck.
Rizzi played the ball from an offside position after a Dean chip through, allowing the St. Mary's clubman to open Ireland's account with the boot in the 27th minute. The Italians responded within two minutes, though, as a well-struck drop goal from Rizzi restored the 12-point margin.
Unforced errors continued to frustrate Ireland who looked panicky at times. Dean was charged down by Rizzi and also missed touch from a penalty. Typifying the intensity that Italy were playing at, diminutive scrum half Charly Trussardi produced a big tackle on number 8 Coombes to force a turnover past halfway.
Replacement Alan Tynan, who came on for his debut at full-back, showed some lovely touches either side of the break - both with the boot and in the air - and Ireland scored a much-needed try only two minutes into the second period. After the forwards gained ground in front of the posts, Dean switched the direction of the attack and used Frawley's return pass to send Nash over in the left corner.
The Limerick youngster was over for his second try in the 46th minute, the initial attacking platform coming from a Coombes grubber kick which led to a penalty. Hooker Kelleher was stopped just short after breaking away from a maul, before Gavin Mullin's skip pass played in Nash out wide. Dean swept over the levelling conversion with aplomb - 15-15.
A scrum penalty kept the momentum going in Ireland's favour, before Kelleher was denied a try after Ireland failed to heed referee Mike Adamson's call to 'use it' from a maul. Following further pressure in the Italian 22, Tynan just lost control of the ball as he attempted to lunge out of a tackle and touch down for an opportunist try.
Ireland had 80% possession entering the final quarter but those missed opportunities, including two drop goal attempts from Dean, let the under-fire Italians off the hook. Malone's charges finally got the scoreboard moving again when Dean's 63rd-minute penalty punished a d'Onofrio offside. Nash took credit too for a great catch in the build-up.
A couple of solid lineouts from Ireland prevented Italy from capitalising on some rare territory, before replacement Connacht's Sean Masterson won a ruck penalty just inside the Italian half and Frawley drilled his 45-metre kick through the uprights, opening up a six-point lead with less than 10 minutes remaining.
Unfortunately, the Irish youngsters lapsed in defence at a crucial juncture. They are the only one of the 12 competing teams in Georgia who do not have a player returning from last year's World Rugby U20 Championship, and that lack of experience at this level cost them at times.
They were caught for numbers on the right and Zanon breezed through into the 22 before Cioffi managed to hold onto the centre's inside pass and crash over. Luck was on Italy's side when Cioffi's conversion, which initially was going wide, veered inside the right hand post at the last moment and they were suddenly back in front.
There was still more drama to come. Italy, who have finished 11th at the last three U20 Championships, blundered when trying to run down the clock and Kelleher got his hands on a ruck ball, forcing a penalty on the Italian 10-metre line. Frawley took on the kick and the shot for glory, but the Skerries native missed the target, leaving Italy to celebrate their maiden success in 13 meetings with Ireland at this age-grade.
Speaking afterwards, Ireland captain Paul Boyle, whose side play Scotland on Sunday, said: "We are devastated. Italy are a good, physical side and our first half performance wasn't up to scratch. Our 'D' wasn't great and we didn't get our attack shape right. We came back a bit in the second half but fell short in the end. We know we can do it, we'll just have to sharpen up in training."
Ireland U20s: Jack Kelly (Dublin University/Leinster); Colm Hogan (Dublin University/Munster), Gavin Mullin (UCD/Leinster), Ciaran Frawley (UCD/Leinster), Calvin Nash (Young Munster/Munster); Conor Dean (St. Mary's College/Leinster), Jonny Stewart (Queen's University/Ulster); Joey Conway (UL Bohemians/Munster), Diarmuid Barron (Garryowen/Munster), Charlie Connolly (Dublin University/Leinster), Fineen Wycherley (Young Munster/Munster), Oisin Dowling (Lansdowne/Leinster), Marcus Rea (Queen's University/Ulster), Paul Boyle (Lansdowne/Leinster) (capt), Gavin Coombes (Young Munster/Munster).
Replacements: Ronan Kelleher (UCD/Leinster) for Barron, Alan Tynan (Young Munster/Munster) for Hogan (both 23 mins), Sean Masterson (Corinthians/Connacht) for Rea (64), Jack Regan (UCD/Leinster) for Dowling (67), Peter Cooper (Belfast Harlequins/Ulster) for Connolly, Greg McGrath (Lansdowne/Leinster) for Conway (both 71). Not used: Jack Stafford (Shannon/Munster), Angus Curtis (Queen's University/Ulster).