Ireland 57 Italy 6
On days like this, rugby, through no fault of the players or even the referee, does itself no favours. A law which was designed to prevent a farce ended up achieving just that.
The match hinged, and was rendered pretty pointless, on a red card for the Italian replacement hooker Epalahame Faiva following a high hit on Dan Sheehan, catching his Irish counterpart on the chin with his shoulder. With no mitigation, Georgian referee Nika Amashukeli had no alternative but to send him off.
As Gianmarco Lucchesi had gone off injured, that led to Amashukeli checking with his officials before correctly decreeing that not only would the scrums thereafter be uncontested but that Italy had to go down to 13 men. Well, 'correct' according to World Rugby's laws.
So, in addition to sacrificing winger Pierre Bruno for a third prop in the frontrow (even though the scrums were uncontested) in the shape of Ivan Nemer they also had to remove one more player, and chose number eight Toa Halafihi. Nemer also assumed the throwing duties, and impressively too.
That the Italians should be doubly penalised for a red card and an injury which was no fault of their own was presumably designed to prevent teams from seeking an advantage by going to uncontested scrums, but that clearly wasn’t the case here, and it merely proves that in this instance the law is indeed an ass.
It had been a low-key affair with too many stoppages before that, albeit at times Ireland had put together nice launch plays and passages of running rugby, often locating space on the edges in what looked like a preordained tactic; as was Jamison Gibson-Park often feigning to go one way before then going the other to see out defenders who switched off.
The highlight was a try by Joey Carbery after Peter O'Mahony's line and pass inside to Caelan Doris, who linked with Sheehan to create a two-on-one which the hooker executed with Carbery.
But after the red card and double-whammy for Italy, the initially bemused crowd seemed stunned into silence. There wasn’t much satisfaction in this, certainly not for Italy, nor even for the home team or home crowd, although they somehow stayed with their team and the game until the end.
In a stop-start game Ireland sometimes lost their shape in attack, failed to find space and forced things, while again struggling to resource their own ruck ball, where they were penalised five times. But for two late converted tries they’d have come up well short of what they should have achieved on the scoreboard.
That said, there were a brace of tries for Michael Lowry, who also turned down a hat-trick of his own to set up James Lowe's second try, and there were also first Test tries for Ryan Baird and Kieran Treadwell. After setting the ball rolling, Carbery will have been disappointed to miss three conversions. The arrival of Johnny Sexton was always likely to restore some order, and he did.
Within two minutes of the Italian double dismissal Gibson-Park sauntered over after he skip passed to Lowe, who fended Edoardo Padovani and then passed back inside to the scrumhalf.
The third Irish try followed on the half-hour after Robbie Henshaw trucked it up from a five-metre scrum and from the recycle Carbery miss-passed to Lowry, who skipped past the tackle of Monty Ioane to mark his Test debut with a try.
The bonus point arrived two minutes before the break when Ireland took the Italians through multiple phases while also looking to keep the ball alive and reaching both edges, before Gibson-Park probed the blindside again off a ruck close to the line and soft hands enabled O’Mahony to score his first try in 20 Tests, dating back to the World Cup pool win over Russia in October 2019.
To compound Italy's woes, Paolo Garbisi was by then limping with what seemed like a hip injury, but with the last kick of the half he augmented an earlier penalty by Padovani.
They also held out for the first 10 minutes of the second period, Garbisi even missing a kickable penalty, before Gibson-Park upped the tempo with a quick tap inside the Italian 22 and after a charge through the guts by Tadhg Beirne, Gibson-Park carefully picked out Lowe for a cluster of available bodies for a try.
Soon after his introduction, Sexton worked his wrap and carried into space before putting Lowry over for his second, whereupon Ireland lost their way for a while until Baird charged down a box kick by replacement scrumhalf Alessandro Fusco and also executed a deft pick-up on the run before diving over – not an easy task for a player of his height, 6' 6".
When Braam Steyn was sin-binned for batting the ball into touch Italy were reduced to 12 men, thus affording Ireland a ready-made five-on-three from a five-metre scrum, and Sexton orchestrated it for Lowry to unselfishly lay on a second try for Lowe when the hat-trick was abegging for himself.
To their huge credit, Italy never chucked in the towel, remaining competitive until the very end when holding Ireland up over the line. But Ireland weren't to be denied from the goal-line drop out. Retaining their shape and patience, Sexton supported a storming break by Jack Conan before Treadwell, who added some oomph off the bench, took a hard line on to Craig Casey's pass to score his first Test try.
SCORING SEQUENCE – 4 mins: Carbery try, con 7-0; 14: Padovani pen 7-3; 21: Gibson-Park try, Carbery con 14-3; 30: Lowry try 19-3; 38: Ringrose try 24-3; 40 (+1): Garbisi pen 24-6; (half-time 24-6); 52: Lowe try 29-6; 57: Lowry try, Sexton con 36-6; 70: Baird try, Sexton con 43-6; 76: Lowe try, Sexton con 50-6; 82: Treadwell try, Sexton con 57-6.
IRELAND: Michael Lowry (Ulster); Mack Hansen (Connacht), Garry Ringrose (Leinster), Robbie Henshaw (Leinster), James Lowe (Leinster); Joey Carbery (Munster), Jamison Gibson Park (Leinster); Andrew Porter (Leinster), Dan Sheehan (Leinster), Tadhg Furlong (Leinster); Tadhg Beirne (Munster), Ryan Baird (Leinster); Peter O'Mahony (Munster, capt), Josh van der Flier (Leinster), Caelan Doris (Leinster),
Replacements: James Hume (Ulster) for Ringrose (3-9 and 54 mins), David Kilcoyne (Munster) for Porter (44), Jack Conan (Leinster) for Doris, Johnny Sexton (Leinster) for Carbery (both 54), Finlay Bealham (Connacht) for Furlong, Kieran Treadwell (Ulster) for Beirne, Craig Casey (Munster) for Gibson-Park (all 62), Ringrose for Henshaw (68), Rob Herring (Ulster) for Sheehan (69 ).
ITALY: Edoardo Padovani (Benetton); Pierre Bruno (Zebre Parma), Juan Ignacio Brex (Benetton), Leonardo Marin (Benetton), Monty Ioane (Benetton); Paolo Garbisi (Montpellier), Stephen Varney (Gloucester); Danilo Fischetti (Zebre Parma), Gianmarco Lucchesi (Benetton), Pietro Ceccarelli (Brive); Niccolò Cannone (Benetton), Federico Ruzza (Benetton); Giovanni Pettinelli (Benetton), Michele Lamaro (Benetton, capt), Toa Halafihi (Benetton).
Replacements: Epalahame Faiva (Benetton) for Lucchesi (9 mins), Ivan Nemer (Benetton) for Bruno (20), Tiziano Pasquali (Benetton) for Ceccarelli, Alessandro Fusco (Zebre Parma) for Varney (both half-time), Manuel Zuliani (Benetton) for Cannone (49), Braam Steyn (Benetton) for Pettinelli (56), Pettinelli for Lamaro (63-77), Marco Zanon (Benetton) for Marin (65), David Sisi (Zebre Parma) for Ruzza, David Sisi (Zebre Parma) for Ruzza (both 68), Marin for Garbisi (77 mins).
Sent-off: Faiva (19 mins).
Sin-binned: Steyn (75 mins).
Referee: Nika Amashukeli (Georgia).