Based on the evidence of this patient and professional display, all roads will be leading to the Millennium Stadium on March 21 for a Grand Slam showdown. Ireland won’t worry that two late tries may have made the scoreline look somewhat flattering.
It wasn’t always plain sailing, but Italy don’t capitulate at the Stadio Flaminio, although they did their best to give Ireland a head start when full back Andre Masi earned the wrath of referee Chris White inside a minute.
Masi’s head-high tackle on Rob Kearney earned him a yellow card and should, but didn’t, have given Ireland the perfect platform. Ireland’s coach Declan Kidney admitted it was an opportunity scorned because, instead of taking advantage, the visitors went on to concede three points during Masi’s enforced absence.
Kidney agreed that Ireland were far from fluent in the opening quarter. “We tried to push it too hard,” he said.
But if Ireland found it hard to shake off Italy throughout that opening half, they did have the benefit of good fortune. Tommy Bowe scored an opportunistic intercept try and Italy also failed to take advantage when Ronan O’Gara was sent to the sin bin for obstruction. The out half had an attempted clearance charged down and then blatantly prevented Gonzalo Canale from following through. Luke McLean, having kicked the perfect three from three for Italy earlier, missed the simple penalty attempt, a crucial lapse. Ireland responded brilliantly and went through phase after phase to score a converted try before the break, establishing a 14-9 lead. On reflection, it was an intense and bruising opening half when Ireland struggled to overcome their confrontational hosts. The advantage flattered the visitors but it was a defiant phase of play that gave them the lead.
After huffing their way upfield, Rob Kearney showed some fine initiative by putting Ireland deep into opposition territory with a magnificent 60 metre kick. From there, Ireland launched a prolonged attack that went through 18 phases before substitute scrum half Peter Stringer and Stephen Ferris combined to send Luke Fitzgerald through for a try that Kearney, with both O’Gara and Paddy Wallace off the pitch, converted.
It got better in the opening minutes of the second half when Ireland went in for a superbly created try; again the dynamism of number eight Jamie Heaslip was shown when he scythed through a gap, only to be stopped short of the line. But Ireland kept the ball, went through the phases and David Wallace was never going to be stopped when he drove through from eight metres for a score that O’Gara, soon to add a penalty, converted.
Fitzgerald was then rewarded for his initiative when he took a quick line out throw to Gordon D’Arcy; the sub returning possession to the winger who flew in for a try.
Brian O’Driscoll got on the score sheet for the second week in succession when he intercepted inside his own half from the kick off and scored a fifth try that O’Gara again converted to push the score out to 38-9.
It was a day when the pack stood up to be counted. Front rowers Marcus Horan and John Hayes responded to criticism by first matching and then dominating their Italian opponents, Paul O’Connell, Donncha O’Callaghan and Jamie Heaslip stood out amongst a very fine group performance, and the Irish backs created and finished opportunities that give every reason to be optimistic.
Coach Kidney won’t bank on anything yet, however: “Two down, three to go, we’re in the position I would have liked to be before the start of the campaign.”
Added Brian O’Driscoll: “The scoreline may flatter us but we’ll take anything we can get. They didn’t score a try and that’s because of our defence, not because of their lack of ability.
“We’re where we want to be. Any time you come to Rome and score 38 points you’d be happy,” he said.
“We’re pleased but there’s plenty to work on, which is a good place to be. There’s still a lot of graft to put in before the England game.”
ITALY: A Masi, K Robertson, G Canele, Mirco Bergamasco, M Pratichetti, L McLean, P Griffen, S Perugini, F Ongaro, M Castrogiovanni, S Dellape, T Reato. A Zanni, S Parisse (captain), Mauro Bergamasco.
Replacements: A. Bacchetti for Robertson (20, inj), C. Nieto for Castrogiovanni (32, inj), C. Festuccia for Ongaro (42), C. Del Fava for Dellape, J. Sole for Reato, G. Garcia for Canale (all 45), G. Toniolatti for McLean (71).
IRELAND: R. Kearney, T. Bowe, B. O’Driscoll (captain); P. Wallace, L. Fitzgerald, R O’Gara, T O’Leary; M Horan, J Flannery, J Hayes, D O’Callaghan, P O Connell, S Ferris, J Heaslip, D Wallace.
Replacements: G. D’Arcy for P. Wallace, T. Court for Horan (54, inj), R. Best for Flannery (60), D. Leamy for Ferris (63), P. Stringer for O’Leary (72), M. O’Kelly for O’Connell (76), G. Murphy for Kearney (76). Temporary. P. Stringer for P Wallace (34-40)
Referee: C. White (England)