roman conquest

Ireland's Six Nations title defence off to winning start against Italy

Joe Schmidt’s men powered past Italy in the final quarter at Stadio Olimpico.

Italy 3

Ireland 26

Murray Kinsella reports from Stadio Olimpico

IRELAND’S SIX NATIONS defence got off to winning start as they wore Italy down for 65 minutes before scoring 14 points in the closing stages of the encounter at Stadio Olimpico in Rome.

Paul O'Connell claims a high ball Matteo Ciambelli / INPHO Matteo Ciambelli / INPHO / INPHO

There was some frustration before those two late tries, as a stubborn Italian defence kept Ireland at bay, but the overall impression is that Joe Schmidt’s plan for this encounter came off exactly as he would have anticipated.

Man of the match Conor Murray and Tommy O’Donnell were the try scorers for Ireland, Ian Keatley was 100% off the tee with four penalties and a conversion, and replacement out-half Ian Madigan added two points of his own.

The Italians were as game as had been anticipated but rarely threatened the Irish tryline until the very last two minutes, it largely being a comfortable 80-minute defensive shift for Les Kiss’ charges.

A late injury to Sean O’Brien in the warm-up had threatened to unsettle Ireland, but O’Donnell stood in at number seven in convincing fashion. Rob Kearney and Peter O’Mahony led with their actions, particularly with ball in hand, while number eight Jordi Murphy was busy and confident from the base of the scrum.

This was an imperfect performance from an Ireland side missing the likes of Jamie Heaslip, O’Brien and Johnny Sexton, and there is certainly much work to be done before hosting France next weekend, but there must be satisfaction in a winning beginning.

Ireland’s first-half scoring was limited to three penalties from the boot of Keatley, with a secure start allowing the Munster out-half to settle any nerves off the tee as early as the seventh minute.

Ireland’s kick-heavy game plan was apparent from Keatley’s first touch in open play, as he launched a garryowen onto the jittery Andrea Masi. Josh Furno knocked on as Italy scrambled and following the subsequent scrum, Ireland milked that first penalty as Brunel’s side came offside.

Ian Keatley kicks a penalty Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Ireland’s set piece began competently too, the lineout providing clean ball for Conor Murray and Jack McGrath forcing Martin Castrogiovanni to concede a penalty at the opening scrum.

The Leinster loosehead was pinged himself soon after Keatley’s first three points, but redeemed himself with a superb choke tackle on Kelly Haimona soon after, O’Donnell muscling in to aid the turnover of possession.

A spill from Masi in the air led to Ireland’s second penalty of the afternoon, Tommy Bowe comping superbly to force the Italy fullback to knock-on. Wing Luke McLean absent-mindedly collected the ball in an offside position and Keatley slotted the 30-metre three points for a 6-0 lead with 21 minutes on the clock.

Murray’s box kicks featured heavily, while Keatley also looked to use the boot frequently as Italy struggled to gain dominance under the high ball. Of more concern for Ireland were two visits to the Italian 22 that failed to result in points.

At one stage, Schmidt’s men went through 11 phases of simple one-off runners outside Murray, ending with Simon Zebo being penalised for holding onto the pill after being tackle. The lack of ruthlessness and invention was worrying.

There were handling errors intermittently too, with Robbie Henshaw guilty of one error and Murray sending the ball loosely behind the inside centre on another occasion.

Still, Italy struggled to hold territory and Ireland earned another stint in the home side’s 22 with 36 minutes elapsed. Simon Easterby’s powerful maul worked forward, before Italy dragged it to deck and came in the side simultaneously.

Keatley made no mistake from the tee for a 9-0 lead.

Rob Kearney tackled by Edoardo Gori Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

That should have seen them into the break holding that scoreline, but Italy regained possession from Haimona’s restart and barrelled into Ireland’s defensive zone. Schmidt would have been frustrated with the uncharacteristic lack of discipline thereafter.

First Bowe failed to released the tackled player, then McGrath dragged a lifter to ground at a close-range Italian lineout. On the stroke of halftime, Haimona took a successful first shot at goal to reduce Ireland’s advantage to six points.

There was more variety to the Irish attack after the break, as forward began to look for passing options rather than simply trucking into contact. The effect was to stretch Italy’s defence, make them work harder to complete tackles and resource rucks.

Zebo began to take on a playmaking role, first allowing Jared Payne to released Robbie Henshaw down the left, then coming up with a gorgeous right-handed pass to send Payne bursting into the same area of the pitch.

Knock-ons from O’Donnell and Henshaw ended those promising attacks. Italy remained unable to gain any dominance of territory, and the impression was that Ireland were sticking to the plan of wearing the home side out before the final 20 minutes.

Keatley kept the scoreboard progressing with a 57th-minute penalty after Italy had illegally wheeled a scrum, and then Ireland’s attack finally began to show its true worth as the game moved towards its conclusion.

An excellent Keatley kick to touch and then Murray’s block down of an attempted Masi clearing kick heaped the pressure on Italy, and led to Ireland sending a number of penalties into the right corner.

Conor Murray celebrates his try with teammates Ireland celebrate Conor Murray's try after 65 minutes. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

The Italians dragged the maul down twice in a row, forcing referee Pascal Guazere to lose patience and send hooker  Leonardo Ghiraldini to the bin. Ireland went to the corner again, this time with a seven-point reward.

O’Connell claimed the lineout, Murphy broke away to the left from the transfer, replacement hooker Sean Cronin went to within inches and then Murray sniped over for the try. Keatley’s conversion sent Ireland 19-3 ahead.

Schmidt began to heavily use the bench with the Italians tiring, that magical 60-minute barrier once again proving their enemy. It was Ian Madigan’s pass – he being on for Keatley at out-half – that exploited a poor read from Castrogiovanni and allowed O’Donnell to make a huge bust in midfield.

The Munster openside impressively burst through a feeble Masi tackle attempt, fended Leonardo Sarto and sprinted clear from a total of 45 metres out to score. Madigan tacked on the extra two for 26-3.

Italy showed some spirit in attack to finish the game, Kelly Haimona having a try ruled out by TMO Graham Hughes with 79 minutes gone, but they were a spent force at that stage.

Ireland have plenty to work on before France visit Dublin next weekend, but this was a case of job done in Rome.

Italy scorers:Penalties: Kelly Haimona [1 from 1]Ireland scorers:

Tries: Conor Murray, Tommy O’Donnell

Conversions: Ian Keatley [1 from 1], Ian Madigan [1 from 1]

Penalties: Ian Keatley [4 from 4]

ITALY: Andrea Masi (Giovanbattista Venditti ’76); Leonardo Sarto, Michele Campagnaro (Tommaso Allan ’63), Luca Morisi, Luke McLean; Kelly Haimona, Edoardo Gori; Matias Aguero (Alberto De Marchi ’53), Leonardo Ghiraldini (yellow card ’64 to ’74), Martin Castrogiovanni (Dario Chistolini ’71); Josh Furno, George Biagi (Marco Fuser ’68); Alessandro Zanni (Marco Barbini ‘47), Francesco Minto (Andrea Manici for Ghiraldini sin bin), Sergio Parisse (capt.).

Replacements not used: Guglielmo Palazzani.

IRELAND: Rob Kearney; Tommy Bowe, Jared Payne (Felix Jones ’68), Robbie Henshaw, Simon Zebo; Ian Keatley (Ian Madigan ’65), Conor Murray (Isaac Boss ’71); Jack McGrath (James Cronin ’68), Rory Best (Sean Cronin ’47), Mike Ross (Marty Moore ’52); Devin Toner, Paul O’Connell (capt.); Peter O’Mahony (Iain Henderson ’65), Tommy O’Donnell, Jordi Murphy.

Replacements not used: Robbie Diack.

Referee: Pascal Guazere.

Attendance: 57, 700.

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