by Brendan Cole
An impressively attack-minded Ireland put Italy to the sword at Aviva Stadium, sparking hopes that they could yet get involved in the battle for the RBS 6 Nations Championship title.
A Franco-Welsh showdown looked to be on the cards after the opening two weeks but a valuable win by 32 points could yet see Ireland still involved when the final round of games rolls around on St Patrick’s day.
That said, Ireland will not be getting carried after a victory over an Italy side that struggled in the set piece and only offered a sporadic attacking threat.
The early exchanges were bruising as expected, though both sides tried to move the ball wide.
Ireland’s ambition excited the crowd but also cost them the early lead when Botes converted a penalty given for holding on. It could have been worse – he had earlier missed from even longer range.
With territory proving hard to gain and mistakes coming at inopportune moments Ireland could have been forgiven for being rattled, but two Sexton penalties settled the nerves and gave Ireland the lead.
Better was to come.
A powerful scrum saw Mike Ross get up on the tighthead side and that gave Gordon D’Arcy the type of opportunity he thrives on out wide.
With Italy retreating and uncertain, the Leinster centre glided through a small gap and raced forward to give Ireland a beachhead in the Italian 22.
As they would all day, Ireland calmly worked through a few phases on the tryline before Earls wormed his way over for the opening try, which Sexton also converted.
At that point, Ireland looked to be cruising. But gradually, poor decisions and execution saw them lose tempo and Italy slowly regained their confidence.
After several slow phases, Rob Kearney ran from his own 22 and despite initially making gains, the move almost turned to disaster when an attempted switch saw the ball go to ground.
Italian centre Alberto Sgarbi’s superb pickup gave him a yard of space and an apparently clear run to the line but a brilliant covering tackle by Sexton saved his team’s blushes.
That reprieve was temporary.
Ireland had a lineout after Sexton’s heroics but ended up woefully undermanned out wide when it was overthrown and lost at the back and Sergio Parisse was on hand to score the try when Tommy Bowe’s effort to block off Italy’s width failed.
To their credit, Ireland refused to go into their shell. Another penalty was won shortly after and from a kickable position Sexton went for the line.
Ireland again ended up with a ruck on the Italian tryline and while D’Arcy and Kearney’s passes were not technically perfect, they were wide and ambitious enough for Tommy Bowe to go over untouched for another converted try just before half-time.
Botes was unable to take the chance to narrow the gap to four straight after the break, and with Stephen Ferris becoming increasingly influential in attack, Italy started to fade from the game.
The blindside’s one-handed offload almost saw Bowe go over and from the resultant scrum Ross again got the better of a massive scrum battle to give Ireland another valuable penalty chance. From ‘gimme’ range, Sexton knocked it over.
A slew of tries followed.
Murray was impressively physical at times but hesitated at times when Ireland needed to speed things up and was withdrawn after 53 minutes with Eoin Reddan brought in to lift the pace.
Suddenly, Ireland’s backs started to benefit from an extra split second of time and they were soon probing the goal-line again.
Again, the situation was perfectly managed, with Sexton’s pass to Bowe proving fast, crisp and long enough to beat the desperate intercept attempt and put the winger over and Ireland 20 points ahead.
Italy probed Trimble’s wing a couple of times but he timed a tackle to perfection to snuff out an overlap.
O’Connell conceded a penalty which Italy tapped to touch in the corner soon after, but the captain ripped the ball from the Italian maul to end the pressure and their attacking threat did not surface again.
For their part, Ireland switched into experimental mode. Fergus McFadden’s introduction for Keith Earls saw Tommy Bowe move to outside centre.
Not long after, Ronan O’Gara came on to the customary roar but it was D’Arcy, not Sexton, who was withdrawn and came on.
O’Gara, Sexton and Bowe were now the 10-12-13 combination.
In the pack, Donnacha Ryan and new cap Peter O’Mahony had entered the fray minutes earlier, and Tom Court and Sean Cronin also got some time on the pitch in the front row.
Predictably, the game became disjointed though flourishes like Ryan’s circle pass for O’Connell kept the crowd interested as time wound down and there was a late try for Court to put Ireland well on top on the scoreboard.
Ireland were not quite finished even then. Trimble had been industrious and assured all day on the wing and he got his reward when a sloppy Italian turnover on half-way gave him a clear run to the line.
Man-of-the-match Sexton missed the conversion for that try, but he had added the extras for Court’s earlier and overall had a hugely impressive day of points kicking.
France next week is a hugely daunting task and in truth, Ireland will know that Italy were ill equipped to take advantage of their occasional dips during this game.
But they are – just – in with a chance of getting their hands on this Six Nations title.