The injury-plagued Ireland Under-20s were unable to kick on and truly put a resilient Italy side to the sword in the second half as Noel McNamara's youngsters wrapped up the World Rugby U-20 Championship pool stages with a 38-14 bonus point win.
The big victory they needed to significantly boost their semi-final hopes looked on the cards when they surged into a 31-0 lead after just 38 minutes in humid Santa Fe. However, Italy hit back with tries either side of half-time and Ryan Baird's 55th-minute effort proved to be Ireland's final score.
Impressive Munster Academy out-half Ben Healy kicked 15 points, including the conversions of tries from Michael Milne (7 minutes), Cormac Foley (15), Azur Allison (33), Rob Russell (37) and Baird. Ireland were ranked sixth after the pool stages and will meet old rivals England in Rosario in Monday's 5th-8th place play-offs (kick-off 3.30pm local time/7.30pm Irish time).
On a day when Thomas Ahern and replacements Luke Clohessy, David Ryan and Max O'Reilly won their first Ireland U-20 caps and five players made their first starts, stand-in captain Liam Turner praised his team-mates for the way they bounced back from losing heavily to Australia and coped with another tight four-day turnaround.
"We just wanted to come into the game and play our game and take each moment at a time," said the ever-present centre afterwards. "A few things didn't stick for us, but you can't question the effort in all three of our games so far. It's been absolutely savage from the whole squad and the guys flying over late from Dublin (as injury replacements).
Ireland quickly set about their task, using a series of penalties to pin Italy back right on their own line and Milne, Baird and David McCann all carried forcefully. Indeed, it was McCann's quick delivery from a close-in ruck which sent tighthead Milne over for the game's opening try, converted by Healy.
The Garryowen and Munster Academy starlet quickly tagged on a penalty goal, which was won by turnover-hunting openside Ciaran Booth who unfortunately injured himself in a dangerous-looking clear-out by Italian centre Damiano Mazza. Niall Murray came on in his place.
Disruption at an Italian lineout and Angus Kernohan's determination to be first to Colm Reilly's kick over the top led to a second Irish try. Italy, who agonisingly lost 24-23 to England last Saturday, were caught for numbers on the left where winger Russell's pass back inside sent centre Foley darting in to score close to the posts.
Trailing 17-0, Italy's execution let them down near the Irish whitewash with a couple of knock-ons, while Ireland scrambled well in defence. An Ahern turnover and some raking clearance kicks from Healy and Jake Flannery won back those lost metres.
Russell threatened on the left again, both sides showing adventure to attack from deep through some lung-busting phases in the 22-degree heat. Kernohan was crowded out in the right corner, but Italy lost the resulting lineout, John McKee tidying up before Ulster Academy back rower Allison managed to crash over with support from Murray.
Healy kept up his 100% kicking rate with that conversion and a brilliant touchline kick after Ireland had flooded forward once more from another Italian handling error. Lovely hands from Reilly, Flannery and Healy put Russell over in the left corner past covering prop Lorenzo Michelini.
Nonetheless, with five replacements on just before half-time, Italy struck in timely fashion with some scrum pressure leading to scrum half Alessandro Fusco sniping over thanks to a clever dummy. They gained further momentum with a quick-fire penalty try from the second half's opening scrum, just five metres out.
Ireland's error count increased with Reilly fumbling the restart, the Azzurrini swooping in to go close with forward carries before the scrum option paid dividends with the back-pedalling Irish infringing and coughing up seven more points. Squad skipper Charlie Ryan and Jonathan Wren were both on at this stage with Ahern and Kernohan both forced off with knocks.
That try was cancelled out before the hour mark, Reilly making a smart break from a ruck and the Irish forwards soon took over, picking and going up to the line where Baird used his power to get the ball down and get the scoreboard moving again. Healy added the extras to reopen a 24-point advantage, but the bad luck with injuries continued as the ever-influential McCann was helped off.
With three tough fixtures in eight days, tiredness crept in for both teams and the final quarter was littered with mistakes. Knock-ons from Foley and replacement Dylan Tierney-Martin spoiled promising attacks, and the latter was also tackled short of the line a few minutes later. Russell then mishandled Healy's pass with the line at his mercy, and Reilly's late opportunist attempt - he dived on a loose ball right on the Italian line - was ruled out due to a prior knock-on.
ITALY U-20: Ange Capuozzo (Grenoble Espoirs); Jacopo Trulla (Valsugana Rugby Padova), Federico Mori (Rugby Etruschi), Damiano Mazza (Kawasaki Robot Calvisano), Cristian Lai (7 Fradis Rugby); Paolo Garbisi (Mogliano Rugby 1969), Alessandro Fusco (Rugby Napoli Afragola); Lorenzo Michelini (Edinol Biella Rugby), Niccolò Taddia (FEMI-CZ Rovigo), Matteo Nocera (Fiamme Oro Rugby), Nicolae-Cristian Stoian (Rugby Anzio), Thomas Parolo (FEMI-CZ Rovigo), Angelo Maurizi (Ione Rugby L'Aquila), Davide Ruggeri (Rugby Como) (capt), Antoine Koffi (Kawasaki Robot Calvisano).
Replacements used: Matteo Drudi (Frascati Rugby 2015) for Michelini, Filippo Alongi (I Titani) for Nocero, Andrej Marinello (Ruggers Tarvisium) for Taddia, Mirko Finotto (Mogliano Rugby 1969) for Koffi, Andrea Zambonin (Rangers Rugby Vicenza) for Stoian (all 39 mins), Giulio Bertaccini (Amatori Rugby Parma) for Mazza (45), Giacomo Da Re (Mogliano Rugby 1969) for Garbisi, Andrea Chianucci (Toscana Aeroporti I Medicei) for Maurizi (both 57), Michelini for Drudi (79).
IRELAND U-20: Jake Flannery (Shannon/Munster); Angus Kernohan (Queen's University/Ulster), Liam Turner (Dublin University/Leinster) (capt), Cormac Foley (St. Mary's College/Leinster), Rob Russell (Dublin University/Leinster); Ben Healy (Garryowen/Munster), Colm Reilly (Buccaneers/Connacht); Josh Wycherley (Young Munster/Munster), John McKee (Old Belvedere/Leinster), Michael Milne (UCD/Leinster), Thomas Ahern (Shannon/Munster), Ryan Baird (Dublin University/Leinster), David McCann (Banbridge/Ulster), Ciaran Booth (Sale Sharks/IQ Rugby), Azur Allison (Ballymena/Ulster).
Replacements used: Niall Murray (Buccaneers/Connacht) for Booth (11 mins), Charlie Ryan (UCD/Leinster) for Ahern (32), Jonathan Wren (Cork Constitution/Munster) for Kernohan (40+2), Thomas Clarkson (Dublin University/Leinster) for Wycherley (44), Dylan Tierney-Martin (Corinthians/Connacht) for McKee (51), Luke Clohessy (Shannon/Munster) for McCann (60), David Ryan (UCD/Leinster) for Foley, Max O’Reilly (Dublin University/Leinster) for Flannery (both 77).
Referee: Rasta Rasivhenge (South Africa).