Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi, Parma
The Ireland Women matched their hosts' four-try haul in Parma but were made to pay for some sloppy defending as they lost to Italy for the first time ever in the Women's Six Nations.
The fired-up Azzurre, who emerged unbeaten from the first two rounds, burst in an early 10-0 lead and deservedly held on in the closing stages with bulldozing player-of-the-match Giada Franco to the fore. Their sharper attacking play and slick handling were rewarded with tries from Aura Muzzo, Franco (2) and Sofia Stefan.
Ireland appeared to getting a grip on the game when Anna Caplice muscled over from close range for a 22-17 lead, adding to an Eimear Considine brace from a cross-field kick and an midfield interception. The sides were level at 22-all at the break and although Nicole Fowley's right boot set up Laura Sheehan's 65th-minute try on her Six Nations debut, the out-half could not convert and Italy stood firm at 29-27.
There were high hopes of Adam Griggs' side building on their 22-5 bonus point victory over Scotland, but Italy's flying start left them playing catch-up. Michaela Sillari, another big influence for her team, knocked over a third minute penalty after former captain Sara Barattin had sniped through a gap and Sene Naoupu was guilty of not rolling away quickly enough.
Some tremendous interplay carved open the Irish defence for the game's opening try, four minutes later. Scrum half Barattin's inside pass put Manuela Furlan clean through at the side of a ruck, flanker Franco was up in support and she carried before offloading for centre Muzzo to finish strongly past Lauren Delany. Sillari's conversion took Italy into double figures.
Ireland managed to quieten the vocal home crowd with skipper Ciara Griffin punching up over the gain-line, and despite a poor initial penalty to touch from Fowley, the Sligo woman redeemed herself with a classy cross-field kick which winger Considine expertly plucked out of the air to touch down in the right corner. The fast-paced action continued to expose defensive gaps and it was two tries apiece by the end of a breathless first quarter.
Young scrum half Kathryn Dane, who had an otherwise impressive first start in green, was charged down by Franco on the quarter hour mark, and although Aoife McDermott made an important cover tackle in the next phase, the home side managed to outflank Ireland on the right with some good hands sending Franco powering over out wide. Sillari curled over the difficult conversion for 17-5 - a huge kick in the end.
Back came Ireland, Considine racing up to intercept Beatrice Rigoni's midfield pass and darting clear from the Italian 10-metre line for her third try in four internationals. Fowley converted and also drilled over a penalty in the 31st minute, rewarding another high catch by Considine with Naoupu, Caplice and Leah Lyons coming more into it with some aggressive tackling and carrying.
Their best multi-phase attack of the night arrived five minutes before the break, the initial pressure coming from full-back Delany's thrust and a Considine run on the opposite flank which drew a high tackle. Playing the advantage, McDermott tidied up in midfield and drove towards the line, setting up Griffin to go close before flanker Caplice, supported by Lyons, stretched over for her second try of the tournament.
Fowley converted to suddenly leave Ireland five points to the good. Frustratingly, they allowed Italy to respond before referee Laura Pettingale's half-time whistle. A back-line reshuffle forced by centre Michelle Claffey's injury-enforced departure left them exposed, and following a Griffin fumble, Italy created numbers on the left for winger Stefan to dash over in the corner.
Sillari suffered her only miss off the game, watching her conversion attempt come back off the left hand post, but Italy had still managed to book-end the half with tries. The early signs in the second period were not good for Ireland as a Fowley grubber kick failed to come off, and the Azzurre continued to find holes the defence with pacy bursts from Stefan and Barattin.
Claire Molloy came to Ireland's rescue to win a relieving penalty, but there was nothing she could do on the 50-minute mark when Muzzo had a super charge up the right wing, getting past both Dane and Delany and showing good awareness to release after the tackle and carry on before supplying the supporting Franco with the scoring pass. Sillari added the right-sided conversion for good measure - 29-22.
A scrappy spell, during which replacement Lindsay Peat and Griffin were fortunate to avoid the sin-bin for a body-check and a high tackle respectively, was broken up by a superb solo run by Delany who drove Ireland back into the Italian 22. Ireland worked the ball infield from a lineout and Sheehan did really well to collect Fowley's cross-field kick, ship a tackle from Stefan and reach out to ground the ball successfully.
Fowley was unable to level from the tee, though, as her conversion from a tight angle was dragged narrowly wide of the far upright. Lyons, who had her arm in a sling after being replaced, was a significant loss as newcomer Deirbhile Nic a Bhaird has limited experience as a lineout throw. The game grew increasingly fractured with both sides guilty of crooked throws, loose passing and taking the wrong option in possession.
A Fowley kick brought Ireland close to the Italian 22 with five minutes remaining, yet Italy dug deep to retain possession and replacement Fiona Reidy's over-eagerness at a ruck allowed them to kick for touch and pin Griggs' charges back in their own 22. The clock went over the 80 minutes and with scrum possession secured and kicked dead, Andrea di Giandomenico's well-drilled squad could celebrate Italy's maiden victory over Ireland in 13 Six Nations meetings.
Italy Women: Tries: Aura Muzzo, Giada Franco 2, Sofia Stefan; Cons: Michaela Sillari 3; Pen: Michaela Sillari
Ireland Women: Tries: Eimear Considine 2, Anna Caplice, Laura Sheehan; Cons: Nicole Fowley 2; Pen: Nicole Fowley
HT: Italy Women 22 Ireland Women 22
Manuela Furlan (Iniziative Villorba Rugby) (capt); Aura Muzzo (Iniziative Villorba Rugby), Michaela Sillari (Rugby Colorno), Beatrice Rigoni (Valsugana Rugby Padova), Sofia Stefan (Valsugana Rugby Padova); Veronica Madia (Rugby Colorno), Sara Barattin (Iniziative Villorba Rugby); Gaia Giacomoli (Rugby Colorno), Melissa Bettoni (Stade Rennais), Lucia Gai (Valsugana Rugby Padova), Valeria Fedrighi (Stade Toulousain), Giordana Duca (UR Capitolina), Ilaria Arrighetti (Stade Rennais), Giada Franco (Rugby Colorno), Elisa Giordano (Valsugana Rugby Padova).
Replacements: Lucia Cammarano (Belve Rugby NeroVerdi), Silvia Turani (Rugby Colorno), Sara Tounesi (Rugby Colorno), Valentina Ruzza (Valsugana Rugby Padova), Valentina Ruzza (Valsugana Rugby Padova), Francesca Sberna (Kawasaki Robot Calvisano), Francesca Sgorbini (Rugby Colorno), Jessica Busato (Iniziative Villorba Rugby), Camilla Sarasso (Biella Rugby Club).
Lauren Delany (Firwood Waterloo Ladies/IQ Rugby); Eimear Considine (UL Bohemians/Munster), Sene Naoupu (Old Belvedere/Leinster), Michelle Claffey (Blackrock/Leinster), Alison Miller (Old Belvedere/Connacht); Nicole Fowley (Galwegians/Connacht), Kathryn Dane (Old Belvedere/Ulster); Laura Feely (Galwegians/Connacht), Emma Hooban (St. Mary's/Leinster), Leah Lyons (Harlequins), Aoife McDermott (Railway Union/Leinster), Nichola Fryday (Galwegians/Connacht), Anna Caplice (Richmond), Claire Molloy (Wasps), Ciara Griffin (UL Bohemians/Munster) (capt).
Replacements: Deirbhile Nic a Bhaird (Old Belvedere/Munster), Lindsay Peat (Railway Union/Leinster), Fiona Reidy (UL Bohemians/Munster), Claire Boles (Railway Union/Ulster), Claire McLaughlin (Old Belvedere/Ulster), Ailsa Hughes (Railway Union/Leinster), Ellen Murphy (Old Belvedere/Leinster), Laura Sheehan (UL Bohemians/Munster).
Referee: Laura Pettingale (England)