IRELAND U20 will be hoping the grizzled edge acquired from having the majority of their pack from last season around as they prepare for a physical encounter with Italy tonight at Dubarry Park (7.30pm).
The Italians tend to mirror their senior counterparts by providing a rough and ready examination in the forward exchanges.
However, Ireland U20 coach Allen Clarke knows that having five returning forwards from last season could make a big difference.
Skipper Rhys Ruddock is among them, as well his Leinster counterparts Jack O’Connell (prop) and Dominic Ryan (openside flanker), plus UCC’s talismanic lock David O’Callaghan.
Cork Con prop Brian Hayes was also involved last term, and provides a valuable option off the bench.
The back row looks to be a particularly potent combination, as Ryan and Ruddock are joined by the latest gem off the Munster production line in Paddy Butler, who has produced some huge performances for Shannon in his maiden All-Ireland League campaign.
Behind them, there is even more cause for optimism that Ireland have a crop capable of challenging for a repeat of the 2007 vintage’s Grand Slam heroics.
That side contained the likes of Keith Earls, Darren Cave and Felix Jones among the backs, and this term it is the Leinster Academy prospects Andrew Conway (full-back) and Brendan Macken (centre) who are tipped to make a significant impact.
The latter’s midfield partner, Nevin Spence, and scrum-half John Cooney are also back for a second bite at the U20 Six Nations cherry, having finished runners-up on points difference to France last term.
Captain Ruddock has insisted the Irish won’t be underestimating Italy, particularly after escaping from last season’s clash in Piacenza with a nervy 29-23 win. But home advantage in Athlone and a spine of experience through the side should nonetheless help them get their campaign off to a winning start.
IRELAND U20 v Italy: A Conway (Blackrock College/Leinster); D Hudson (St. Mary’s College/Leinster), B Macken (Blackrock/Leinster), N Spence (Ballynahinch/Ulster), S Zebo (Cork Constitution/Munster); J McKinney (Queens University/Ulster), J Cooney (UCD /Leinster); B Cagney (UCC/Munster), N Annett (Belfast Harlequins/Ulster), J O’Connell (Lansdowne/Leinster); D O’Callaghan (UCC/Munster), B Marshall (UCD/Leinster); R Ruddock (UCD/Leinster), D Ryan (Lansdowne/Leinster), P Butler (Shannon/Munster).
Replacements: D Doyle (UCD/Leinster), S Maguire (Old Belvedere/ Leinster), B Hayes (Cork Constitution/Munster), R O’Sullivan (Bective Rangers/Leinster), M Heaney (Belfast Harlequins/Ulster), B Kingston (Blackrock/Leinster), E Griffin (Corinthians/Connacht).
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