ITALY’S U20 TEAM has been making progress in recent years, one of the signs that there are strides being made in Italian rugby since Conor O’Shea took over in 2016.

Perhaps O’Shea’s key hire at the very beginning was Stephen Aboud, the IRFU’s ‘Head of Technical Direction’ until he was lured to Italy to take up the same role, his title now reading, ‘Head of Technical Direction for the Development of Players and Coaches’.

With Aboud putting in place strong structures to bring players and coaches through Italian rugby’s pipeline, the national U20 team has become competitive.

The Ireland U20s are in Italy this evening. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

The Azzurri have finished ahead of Ireland in the last two World Rugby U20 Championships in eighth, while they recorded a huge away win against Wales in the 2018 Six Nations and then opened this year’s championship with a win away to Scotland.

That was followed up by a heavy defeat at home to Wales two weekends ago, pointing to inconsistency. But it’s clear why Noel McNamara’s Ireland U20s are treating this evening’s fixture in Rieti [KO 6pm Irish time, streamed on IRFU YouTube] with respect as they look to make it three wins out of three in this year’s championship following victories against England and Scotland.

“Italy are far more competitive and the last three games as we’ve had against them have been one-score games in the end,” says Ireland assistant coach Ambrose Conboy.

“They’re going to be physical, they’re going to be maulers, really quality scrummagers and it’s going to be a testament to our forwards if we can match them.”

With that in mind, the impression made by Ireland’s pack so far this year is encouraging.

The starting front row of Munster loosehead Josh Wycherley, Connacht hooker Dylan Tierney-Martin, and tighthead Thomas Clarkson has been excellent in the set-piece, while they have also shown their ability to play with ball in hand.

“Their ball-playing ability has been something you’ll always look for in front row players because the day is gone where it’s just one task,” says Conboy.

“But it still comes back to all front rows being judged on their fundamental ability to scrummage. Anything beyond that is a bonus in a roundabout way but thankfully these guys have worked on their skillset all the way through. I suppose that’s a credit to the academies they’re within. It’s a great place to be.”

Tighthead prop Thomas Clarkson is underage again next year. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Tighthead Clarkson has another year at this level to come in 2020 and Conboy paid tribute the coaching of Blackrock College’s Seamus Toomey in helping him to learn the scrummaging ropes.

Ireland have an unchanged pack for this evening’s clash with the Italians, lineout leader Charlie Ryan and the tireless Niall Murray continuing in the second row as Martin Moloney, Scott Penny and John Hodnett form a balanced back row again.

Craig Casey returns from injury to partner Harry Byrne in the halfbacks, while Ulster’s Angus Kernohan comes into the back three alongside fullback Jake Flannery and left wing Jonathan Wren.

Inside centre David Hawkshaw captains again, with Liam Turner at 13. The Ireland bench includes four possible new caps in Billy Scannell, Callum Reid, Ben Healy and Ronan Watters.

This is a mature Ireland group and they’ve embraced the responsibility handed to them by the coaching staff to have their homework done on the opposition.

“We’ll send them the clips with voiceovers in relation to what we want to look at,” explains Conboy. “Then we’ll come back in and have a chat about it in a group meeting.

“So it’s not all fresh to them where they’re walking in and they’ve not seen Italy. They’ll be upskilled on that on a Sunday night before they come in on the Monday.

“It seems to have worked in relation to lineout and scrummage for us, particularly say in our attack as well. It’s been really enjoyable for the lads to come in with a knowledge base, rather than it being question-and-answer time.”

The U20s are hoping for a third win tonight. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

The experience of training against the Ireland senior team in front of 4,000 people last Friday was a valuable part of the U20s’ build-up to this game, Conboy stating how pleased the U20s coaching staff were to see their players handling the intensity Joe Schmidt demands.

With two wins from two so far, it would be easy for thoughts to run towards a possible Grand Slam, but Conboy has seen no evidence of these U20s getting ahead of themselves.

“The one thing they would have said after the Scotland win was the lack of a bonus point,” he explains. “It was something they would have desired to come out of there with. Not pre-game but during it, they saw opportunities.

“The number of red zone entries that we had, inside in their 22, that we didn’t get value out of frustrated them, so that’s always a good measure. It didn’t need us coaches to bring them back to ground.”

Italy U20s:

15. Giacomo Da Re (Mogliano Rugby 1969)
14. Edoardo Mastandrea (Valsugana Rugby Padova)
13. Matteo Moscardi (FEMI-CZ Rovigo)
12. Federico Mori (Rugby Etruschi Livorno)
11. Michael Mba (Rugby Casale)
10. Paolo Garbisi (Mogliano Rugby 1969)
9. Lorenzo Citton (Valsugana Rugby Padova)

1. Matteo Drudi (Frascati Rugby Club)
2. Andrej Marinello (Ruggers Tarvisium)
3. Filippo Alongi (The Titans)
4. Nicolae Cristian Stoian (Rugby Anzio)
5. Thomas Parolo (FEMI-CZ Rovigo)
6. Andrea Chianucci (Tuscany Airports I Medici)
7. Davide Ruggeri (Rugby Como) (captain)
8. Antoine Koffi (Kawasaki Robot Calvisano)


16. Marco Bonanni (Florentia Rugby)
17. Luca Franceschetto (Rugby Vicenza)
18. Matteo Nocera (Flame Gold Rugby)
19. Marco Butturini (Modena Rugby 1965)
20. Manuel Zuliani (Rugby Country)
21. Gianmarco Piva (FEMI-CZ Rovigo)
22. Damiano Mazza (Kawasaki Robot Calvisano)
23. Jacopo Trulla (Valsugana Rugby Padova)

Ireland U20s:

15. Jake Flannery (Shannon/Munster)
14. Angus Kernohan (Queen’s University/Ulster)
13. Liam Turner (Dublin University/Leinster)
12. David Hawkshaw (Clontarf/Leinster) (captain) 
11. Jonathan Wren (Cork Constitution/Munster)
10. Harry Byrne (Lansdowne/Leinster)
9. Craig Casey (Shannon/Munster)

1. Josh Wycherley (Young Munster/Munster)
2. Dylan Tierney-Martin (Corinthians/Connacht)
3. Thomas Clarkson (Dublin University/Leinster)
4. Charlie Ryan (UCD/Leinster)
5. Niall Murray (Buccaneers/Connacht)
6. Martin Moloney (Old Belvedere/Leinster)
7. Scott Penny (UCD RFC/Leinster)
8. John Hodnett (UCC/Munster)


16. Billy Scannell (Young Munster/Munster) *
17. Callum Reid (Banbridge/Ulster) *
18. Michael Milne (UCD/Leinster)
19. Brian Deeny (Clontarf/Leinster)
20. Ronan Watters (St.Mary’s College/Leinster) *
21. Cormac Foley (St.Mary’s College/Leinster)
22. Ben Healy (Garryowen/Munster) *
23. Rob Russell (Dublin University/Leinster)

* denotes uncapped player

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