By Tadhg Peavoy at Stadio Olimpico
Italy 3-26 Ireland
Ireland’s Six Nations campaign commenced with a victory that came via a war of attrition with Italy in Rome.
Italy defended resolutely for large swathes of the game at the Stadio Olimpico, but infringements at the breakdown handed Ireland a 9-3 lead early on. Ian Keatley did capitalise on the Azzurri ill-discipline, but Kelly Haimona kept Italy in touch at the break with a penalty for the home side.
However, in the second half Ireland finally found the space that Italy had denied them in the first 40, with both Conor Murray and Tommy O’Donnell crossing the whitewash.
Keatley and Ian Madigan converted to add gloss to the scoreline and Ireland got a difficult job done against a misfiring team that need to discover new ideas to cause any trouble in this year’s championship.
Joe Schmidt’s Ireland had bad news immediately prior to kick-off, when openside Sean O’Brien was ruled out with a tweaked hamstring sustained in the warm-up.
The late change saw O’Donnell in at number seven for the Tullow Tank, with Robbie Diack named on the bench.
The Italians were the team in the ascendency in the early minutes as they spun possession out wide, but they failed to find any holes to exploit in the Ireland defence. Following those initial forays, the Irish went on to dominate the next five minutes. They used pods of forward drives to edge up the pitch, eventually winning a penalty in the 22 that Keatley slotted between the sticks.
The remainder of the opening quarter followed a similar pattern as Ireland dominated possession, but failed to find any gaps in a very tight Italian defensive line.
On the 20-minute mark, Italy finally infringed again and the Munster man stroked over his second penalty to double the lead.
Italy, stoked by those inflicted points, then put together several phases as Haimona swung possession left and right before cross-field kicking for Sergio Parisse and Josh Furno to chase onto. The former clattered into Tommy Bowe in the air and was fortunate to just concede a penalty without a card.
As the game ticked on towards the half-hour mark, the Azzurri continued to defend on the back foot and Ireland continued to attack the tackle one, two and three areas around the fringes of the breakdown, but to little effect. The home defence, buoyed by a vocal Roman crowd, maintained a concrete, high line of defence.
Ireland’s next score again came from a penalty as Martin Castrogiovanni was caught with his hand in the cookie jar - and offside - at a maul. Keatley slotted his third penalty from within the 22.
Italy looked like heading into the half-time break with a bagel to their name; however, a late surge into the Ireland 22 produced a penalty for killing the ball on the deck and Haimona kept Italy within a score as they chomped on their half-time oranges.
The start of the second half was a similar story, as the visitors continued to camp in the Italy 22 and tried to unleash Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne out wide. Both galloped along the tramlines in different attacks before being caught by the covering Leonardo Sarto; the much-fancied centre pairing finally receiving go-forward ball from Keatley, making his Six Nations debut.
But it was more Italian ill-discipline that handed Ireland their next score.
Alberto de Marchi was pinged for wheeling the scrum and Keatley made it four out of four from the tee.
The out-half’s confidence was indeed beginning to blossom after a first half in which he produced a forward pass and some wayward kicking. He continued to exert pressure on Sarto’s left wing, using a cross-field kick for Simon Zebo to chase just after the hour; the Munster winger just beaten to the breaking ball by his Italian opponent.
As Italy defended manfully in an effort to repel what was now constant Ireland pressure, they finally cracked.
Leonardo Ghiraldini was sin-binned for coming in the side of a maul and Keatley kicked for the corner. From the line-out, Paul O’Connell’s catch was fed on to Jordi Murphy on the burst, which took Ireland to within a metre of the line. Murray finished off the move with a snipe from close range and the 27-year-old fly-half added the extras, to give Ireland a commanding 19-3 lead.
Minutes later, Ireland pushed further ahead when Madigan released O’Donnell in midfield and the openside burst through the Azzurri defence and sprinted home to touch down underneath the sticks. Madigan added the extras with ease.
Italy pressed for a consolation in the final ten minutes and produced their best passage of play when a pre-ordained move released Luke McLean down the left flank just outside the Ireland 22. But once again, the Irish defence was solid, with Bowe coming across to nullify the attack.
The Italians continued to press late on and a cross-field kick to the left was touched down by Haimona late on, only for the TMO to rule it out as Parisse had ever so slightly knocked it forward in the build-up.
That was the story of Italy’s day: lots of effort, but too many errors lending themselves to little reward as Ireland’s ability to out-think their opponents and spread the ball in a more cerebral manner won out.
Next up for Schmidt’s charges is a St Valentine’s Day clash with France at Aviva Stadium.
Italy: 15 A Masi, 14 L Sarto, 13 M Campagnaro, 12 L Morisi, 11 L McLean, 10 Ky Haimona, 9 E Gori, 1 M Aguero, 2 L Ghiraldini, 3 M Castrogiovanni, 4 J Furno, 5 G Biagi, 6 A Zanni, 7 F Minto, 8 S Parisse (captain).
Replacements: 16 A Manici on for Minto on 68 mins, 17 A de Marchi on for Aguero on 52 mins, 18 D Chistolini on for Castrogiovanni on 68 mins, 19 M Fuser on for Barbini on 67 mins, 20 M Barbini on for Zanni on 46 mins, 21 G Palazzani, 22 T Allan on for Campagnaro on 63 mins, 23 Gi Venditti on for Masi on 67 minutes.
Barbini was subbed on again for Biagi, as was Minto for Ghiraldini, both on 74 mins.
Ireland: 15 R Kearney, 14 T Bowe, 13 J Payne, 12 R Henshaw, 11 S Zebo, 10 I Keatley, 9 C Murray, 1 J McGrath, 2 R Best, 3 M Ross, 4 D Toner, 5 P O’Connell (captain), 6 P O’Mahony, 7 T O’Donnell, 8 J Murphy.
Replacements: 16 S Cronin for Best on 46 mins, 17 J Cronin on or McGrath on 67 mins, 18 M Moore on for Ross on 51 mins, 19 I Henderson on for O’Mahony on 65 mins, 20 R Diack, 21 I Boss on for Murray on 68 mins, 22 I Madigan on for Keatley on 65 mins, 23 F Jones on for Payne on 67 mins.