Ireland have pulled off the first upset of the 2017 Rugby League World Cup with the Wolfhounds stunning Italy 36-12 in stifling conditions at Barlow Park in Cairns.
Having scored just 14 points at the 2013 World Cup, the Irish matched that tally inside 20 minutes and then kicked on in the second half after the Azzurri had threatened a comeback with tries either side of the interval.
While James Tedesco and Italy’s star-studded forwards had their moments, the pre-game favourites looked rudderless in attack for the majority of the contest with their points coming via an interception and a regathered bomb.
Their cause wasn’t helped with the pre-game withdrawal of Terry Campese while his would-be halves partner Jack Johns didn’t fare much better, forced from the field early in the second half with an arm injury.
While the injuries didn’t help, the Italians were simply outplayed by an enthusiastic Irish side that dominated through the middle and showed plenty of class in the key positions.
Italy might have headed into the game as warm favourites but you wouldn’t have known it in the early stages as the Irish opened the scoring in just the second minute through winger Liam Kay before their opponents had even touched the ball.
Things got even better for the Green Machine when George King latched on to a nifty grubber from Michael McIlorum out of dummy-half to make it 12-0 after 10 minutes.
Kicking with a gale at their backs, the Irish pushed the lead beyond two converted tries through the right boot of halfback Liam Finn, and while the Italians threatened the line after a scheduled drinks break they fell further behind when Kay crashed over in the left corner for his second try of the afternoon.
Having set up both of Kay’s tries, fullback Scott Grix chanced his arm for a third time in the shadows of half-time only to have his cut-out pass intercepted by Justin Castellaro who raced away to give the Italians a sniff heading into the main break.
The Azzurri should have made it back-to-back tries early in the second half when Grix fumbled a James Tedesco grubber, but the fullback recovered just in time to deny Castellaro who looked certain to score.
Suddenly playing with a pep in their step, it didn’t take long for Italy to make amends when Josh Mantellato flew through the air to reel in a bomb before the rangy winger offloaded to centre partner Nathan Milone to cut the gap to eight points.
Cameron Ciraldo’s men had all the momentum and looked odds on to score again, but a crunching tackle to force an error put a halt to their comeback and opened the door for the Irish to kill off the contest.
Italian winger Mason Cerruto produced a pair of try-saving plays in the space of 30 seconds to keep his side in the contest, but it was a case of third time lucky for Ireland when prop Kyle Amor barged over to restore their 14-point buffer.
Any thoughts of a nervy final quarter were put to bed on the hour-mark when Grix turned provider once more to set up Michael Morgan with a grubber that wrong-footed Tedesco before Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook put the cherry on top with a well-deserved four-pointer in the final minute.
Ireland 36 (Liam Kay 2, George King, Kyle Amor, Michael Morgan, Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook tries; Liam Finn 6 goals) def. Italy 12 (Justin Castellaro, Nathan Milone tries; Josh Mantellato 2 goals) at Barlow Park. Half-time: 20-6