A year ago, at the inaugural IRB Junior World Championship in Wales, Ireland suffered a 65-10 loss at the hands of a super-charged New Zealand side that went on to lift the trophy…

The New Zealanders have long had an aura of invincibility about them at world underage tournaments, particularly when they come up against northern Hemisphere opposition.

The Baby Blacks’ conveyor belt of talent has guided them to IRB Under-21 World Championship title wins in both 2003 and 2004, the 2007 IRB Under-19 World Championship crown and they were out on their own at last year’s Junior World Championship.

But even if Ireland succumbed once again today, there were very encouraging signs for Under-20 coach Allen Clarke and those involved with the IRFU’s age grade programme that the gap may indeed be closing between the two countries.

Clarke’s men, missing the services of suspended captain Peter O’Mahony, put in an excellent display in front of a vocal 4,447-strong crowd in Nagoya.

They knocked the defending champions off their stride in a very physical first half and set out their stall with a Herculean defensive effort by the pack, back rowers Dominic Ryan, Brian O’Hara and Rhys Ruddock were to the fore in this aspect.

Aggressive tackling and counter-rucking up front, solid control and kicking at half-back from Matthew Healy and Ian McKinley and full-back Ian Madigan, along with punchy attacking from livewire centre Nevin Spence and latterly from impressive replacements Conor Murray and Andrew Burke saw Ireland make it a real contest.

A second place finish in the RBS Under-20 6 Nations and a gritty win over Argentina in their opening Junior World Championship game had an Irish side captained by second row Ciaran Ruddock primed for a big display.

And that is exactly what they delivered, with notably Ciaran Ruddock and Madigan the only survivors from last year’s match.