Ireland labour to opening Six Nations win over Italy

Second-half tries from Conor Murray and Tommy O’Donnell seal victory after Eternal struggle

Italy 3 Ireland 26

Another performance from Joe Schmidt’s utterly efficient Ireland that leaves us knowing so much more is to still come.

A very red hue to this green victory. The usual Leinster heavy contingent should return next week but really the spread of provincial representation feels more balanced than ever.

Anyway, now more than ever, it's all about the collective. Long before the finish of this dirge the key Munster contributors had their feet up. One being the obvious man-of-the-match Conor Murray.


Expectation fizzed out of the day during the warm-up when Seán O'Brien's hamstring insisted his return had come too soon. In came Tommy O'Donnell with Robbie Diack on the bench as Ireland entered this notoriously attritional fixture stripped of yet another prized possession.

And so the opening 40 minutes gave us the dog-eared script for rugby matches in the Eternal City; blue shirted bodies strewn on the wrong side of most rucks as they offered very little in attack.

At least their calamitous lineout gave Devin Toner the chance to show how much homework he did this week.

Ian Keatley’s first exposure to this ancient tournament was nervy but he settled with two penalties in the opening 20 minutes. He also showed natural outhalf intelligence with his line kicking.

The most threatening passage of play saw Keatley conduct an 11-phase attack which included three carries from Simon Zebo, the third resulting in an Italian turnover. No real intent unfortunately, just individual runners welcomed by gang tackles.

With the Munster decision makers running the show, Keatley had racked up a 9-0 lead on 35 minutes. Moments earlier he overruled Paul O’Connell’s gesture towards the uprights after the latest Italian offside. The reliable lineout maul snuck into the 22, another Italian forward transgressed, and Ireland laboured into a two-score lead with Keatley happy to go for the posts at the second time of asking.

Then, with Sergio Parisse leading the charge, came Italy's best patch.

Pascal Gauzere offered Kelly Haimona his first Six Nations points off the tee and the 17-stone Rotorua outhalf gratefully accepted.

That made it 9-3 at the turn; a solid, conservative test match with no sound of the noises coming from Carton House that promised Ireland would adopt a more expansive, daring approach in 2015. Maybe they are saving themselves for the French. Maybe they saw England batter Wales into submission in Cardiff and felt it prudent to dry the concrete for a Spring of brutal combat.

There were sparks of invention in the third quarter as the new centre pairing of Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne twice linked well with Zebo only for knock-ons by O'Donnell, then Henshaw, to deny what seemed inevitable five-pointers.

At least the game was mired deep in Italian territory.

A succession of scrums kept it there. On came Seán Cronin, when Rory Best was rattled in a tackle, and Marty Moore to wheel the blue eight 90 degrees. Keatley, confidently, made it 12-3.

The unofficial end came when Leonardo Ghiraldini's illegal spoiled Ireland's lineout maul on 63 minutes. Another lineout, a dummy maul, and a Jordi Murphy rumble all led to Murray muscling over. Keatley converted and the day was cooked.

Proof of which came within seconds as O'Donnell stepped Martin Castrogiovanni and fended Andrea Masi's feeble attempt at a tackle to race clear. Much like he did against Canada in 2013, the Tipperary flanker, due to O'Brien's misfortune, profited most from this outing.

Ian Madigan sugar-coated the scoreboard some more but this felt more about Italy's ineptitude than Irish excellence.

At least Joe Schmidt kept us all guessing. When Payne was hauled ashore Tommy Bowe switched to centre. Remember that idea?

Bloodless stuff in the end but the cleanest machines always make it look so smooth.

Scoring sequence
– 6 mins: I Keatley pen, 3-0; 20 mins: I Keatley pen, 6-0; 35 mins: I Keatley pen, 9-0; 40 mins: K Haomona pen, 9-3. Half-time. 57 mins: I Keatley pen, 12-3; 64 mins: C Murray try, 17-3; I Keatley conv, 19-3; 66 mins: T O'Donnell try, 24-3; I Madigan conv, 26-3

Ireland: R Kearney; T Bowe, J Payne, R Henshaw, S Zebo; I Keatley, C Murray; J McGrath, R Best, M Ross; D Toner, P O'Connell (capt); P O'Mahony, T O'Donnell. J Heaslip. Replacements: S Cronin for R Best (46 mins), M Moore for M Ross (51 mins), I Madigan for I Keatley (65 mins), I Henderson for P O'Mahony (both 66 mins), F Jones for J Payne, J Cronin for J McGrath (both 67 mins), I Boss for C Murray (69 mins).

Italy: A Masi; L Sarto, M Campagnaro, L Morisi, L McLean; K Haimona, E Gori; M Aguero, L Ghiraldini, M Castrogiovanni; G Biagi, J Furno; A Zanni, F Minto, S PArisse (capt). Replacements: M Barbini for A Zanni (46 mins), A De Marchi for M Aguero (53 mins), T Allan for M Campagnaro (63 mins), D Chistolini for M Castrogiovanni (74 mins).

P Gauzere (France).