Only Wales and World Rugby U20 Championship winners France stand in the way of an Ireland Grand Slam after Noel McNamara’s side made it three wins from three with a 34-14 victory over Italy in Rieti.
Ireland could have the title race sewn up one round early if they beat their nearest challenges, Les Bleuets, and score four tries at Irish Independent Park in Cork in a fortnight’s time and Wales, in third, fail to get maximum points from their trip to Scotland.
France are four points behind in second place after a 42-27 win over Scotland, while Wales broke English hearts with a last-gasp 11-10 win in Colwyn Bay.
Casey double sets up Cork cracker
Tries from fit-again scrum-half Craig Casey, who darted over in the 10th minute, and Leinster’s Scott Penny, close to half-time, set Ireland up for a victory more difficult than the scoreline suggests with fly-half Harry Byrne kicking 12 points on the night.
Casey’s second and a try from captain David Hawkshaw after the break were matched by Italian replacements, Matteo Nocera and Marco Butturini, in the final seven minutes as the home side finally got some reward for their endeavours.
"It was incredibly tough out there. We knew coming into the game how physical they'd be with the size of them and the way they play rugby. We're delighted with the win, we're delighted to come home with the bonus point, and just really looking forward to the next few weeks,” said Hawkshaw.
High drama in Colwyn Bay
Wales beat England for only the third time at this level after replacement winger Deon Smith dived over in stoppage time to send the home crowd happy.
“It was the best feeling in the world to score that try. We put in a great shift and we couldn’t have asked for any more,” said match-winner Smith.
It was the only time in the match that Wales had been in front, England having taken a third-minute lead through the boot of Kieran Wilkinson.
After 53 scoreless minutes, Cai Evans finally drew Wales level with a penalty of his own, but when Rusi Tuima powered over with 10 minutes to go the points appeared to be heading to England only for Smith to deny them at the death.
France bounce back
A game of 11 tries and high entertainment in Pau ended with Les Bleuets withstanding a fierce fightback from Scotland.
The French responded to their round two defeat to England by flying out of the blocks and racing into a 21-0 lead thanks to tries from Vincent Pinto, Eli Eglaine and Jules Favre, all converted by the accurate boot of Mathieu Smaili.
But Scotland rallied strongly either side of the interval, winger Jack Blain bagging a double while Ross Thompson and Robbie McCallum added their names to the scoresheet. Crucially, Thompson was only able to convert one attempt at goal and Scotland held the slenderest of leads with just over half an hour left to play, at 22-21.
Tries from number eight Jordan Joseph and centre Yoram Moefana saw the momentum swing back to France but replacement Angus Fraser’s unconverted 66th minute try kept the game alive.
Jordan ensured the win for Les Bleuets, however, when he scored his second two minutes from time.