Ireland 58 Italy 15
The hiding to nothing duly became a hiding. The suspicion always lurked that with one or two tries this Irish team might break free and against a naïve Italian side which struggled to live with Ireland’s high tempo, Joe Schmidt’s side exorcised a few of the demons built up over the previous three near misses to cut loose.
Nine tries to two brooked no argument and aside from setting the crowd agog and then sending them off buzzing into the afternoon and beyond, this ought to have satisfied the increasing band of naysayers disaffected with the team’s style content.
It helped that not alone did the Italians not bring their famed scrum, but that their lineout was initially picked apart by Devin Toner, while alongside him Donnacha Ryan had a sensational 80 minutes, perhaps both in response to Ultan Dillane’s cameo in Twickenham.
Even more significantly, the Italian defence creaked and became disjointed when Ireland applied a high tempo. And with most of their clearing out absolutely on the money (needless to say, including the wingers and on at least one occasion, even Simon Zebo) Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton had the platform from which Ireland continually looked to vary their lines of running.
The return of the polished Jared Payne coincided with much better line speed in defence, and Ireland had their portion of defending to do if at times becoming a little too narrow. Robbie Henshaw's work-rate emulated that of Ryan, Toner, Josh van der Flier and Jamie Heaslip (scorer of a brace of tries) up front, while not surprisingly Zebo revelled in the occasion and the glorious conditions. Constantly looking for involvement and full of invention, as against Wales, he added another dimension to Ireland's attacking game.
Oh, and there were 14 line beaks and nine offloads.
Italy began brightly enough, and evidence of the completely different set of skills and the threat posed by the opposition number eight this time around was quick to materialise. Typically soft hands by Sergio Parisse on two occasions, first off a clever lineout peel at the tail, and a dart in behind the Irish defence by Guglielmo Palazzani looked like leading to a try in the corner by Gonzalo Garcia. But, true to form, Murray shepherded two men before drifting on to Garcia and forced his foot over the touchline.
Reprieved, Ireland’s set-pieces helped them work their way out of their own territory, helped along by Toner’s steal, and began going through the phases and testing Italy’s defence with changes of direction before drawing first blood.
Sexton cleverly located space in behind the vulnerable Italian right winger Leonardo Sarto, who flapped the ball behind his fullback David Odiete. Payne was first onto the loose ball, and thanks to Keith Earls's clear-out, Murray was able to find Sexton back on the blind side, the outhalf's pass giving Andrew Trimble a run outside Garcia, who had bitten in, and take two tackles to score in the corner. Sexton's touchline conversion was his first miss in 10 kicks during the tournament.
Soon Zebo’s awareness and offload, after the Irish midfielders crowded out the Italian midfielders’ attempted link, enabled Henshaw to kick downfield, and soon after Ireland struck again. After a good lineout drive around the front off Toner’s take was rebuffed, Rory Best had a dart for the line and then Jack McGrath was helped over the line by Ryan, with the additional help of Van der Flier’s clever clear-out to create the soft fringe. Sexton converted.
Ireland’s handling across the line from Toner’s second steal wasn’t sharp enough for Payne to move the ball on before being clobbered by Michele Campagnaro. Ireland’s improved line speed was in evidence when Henshaw promptly did likewise but knocked on in the process. Italy moved the ball onto the dangerous Campagnaro from the scrum, before Heaslip played the ball after the tackle on the deck for Edoardo Padovani to open the Italians’ account.
Back came Ireland, Zebo accelerating in the outside channels for one fine carry as advantage was played for a late hit by Parisse on, surprise, surprise, Sexton – pretty much a normal match-day event in this tournament. Sexton dusted himself down and exacted retribution from 35 metres with that familiar skip after contact to make it 15-3.
Ireland played their way upfield from the restart, Toner, Ryan and Zebo all making good yardage again, before Sexton found touch close to the line when again exploring the space in behind Sarto.
From an ensuing lineout, and lovely take and one-handed give by Toner to McGrath, Ireland went behind the screen to launch Murray infield from deep and Sexton drew the defender, and took another hit for his trouble, with the inside pass to release Earls on a 40 metre gallop. Earls located Trimble wide out, arrived in support for the offload. It deserved a try, and two phases later it came when CJ Stander, as he does so well, muscled over through two tackles for his first Test try. Sexton converted.
Nor were Ireland letting up in defence. Off an attacking Italian lineout drive, when they went infield to Garcia who was choke-tackled for a turnover scrum which Parisse took issue with, charging at referee Angus Gardner to earn a ticking off in the process.
Ireland had to defend well again with a re-jigged backline when Fergus McFadden, who’d already temporarily replaced Trimble on the right wing, came onto the left as Earls shifted into midfield when Henshaw departed for some running repairs on a facial injury after a strong carry off a defensive scrum. Trimble made one good read and McFadden tracked across the pitch to tackle Mattia Bellini into touch.
In the last play of the half, Sexton opted for a short 50-50 restart, which Ryan claimed. McGrath gathered and trucked it up for the recycle, from which Sexton looped around McFadden inside the 22 and passed to the livewire Zebo. He accelerated through the blue line and flipped a wonderful, one-handed under-arm offload to Payne outside him. He passed infield to the supporting Sexton, who changed direction, drew a defender and passed infield to Trimble, who offloaded to McFadden and as he ran diagonally back toward the left of the posts inside the Italian 22, Heaslip appeared to take the pass and the tackle having made an 80-metre run up the middle of the pitch.
A stunning try which rewarded heads up rugby, awareness of space and support play.
Sexton surprisingly missed the conversion again, but the crowd was still buzzing as the Irish players trooped off with four tries and a 25-3 lead.
Within three minutes of the restart Payne deflated the last vestiges of belief in Italian ranks when picking off Padovani’s telegraphed and laboured skip pass off a scrum to run in untouched under the posts for his third try in 12 tests.
Long since eschewing the slew of penalties in favour of lineouts, the next of which saw Ryan's soft hands at the tail launch Murray infield. Patient close-in driving eventually culminated in Heaslip scoring his second try of the day and 12th of his Test career. Sexton's conversion was his last contribution, as Joe Schmidt also gave Best the rest of the day off, and within three minutes of his arrival Seán Cronin busted through Lorenzo Cittadini's weary tackle after Earls's quick tap and from Murray's pass to register Ireland's seventh try.
However, Ireland’s first scrum without Mike Ross was penalised and then from a quick tap and charge by Padovani, Palazzani’s long looping pass took out an overly bunched blindside defence for Odiete to score.
Cronin underlined his ballast off the bench with a 50-metre carry, and might have gone himself rather than unselfishly look for support. Although Payne was unable to ground the ball over the line, from the resulting phased attack Ian Madigan took the ball flat and dummied inside to stand up Sarto beat him on the outside.
As his touchline conversion hit the post, Finlay Bealham became the eighth Irish replacement with fully 15 minutes to go and, significantly, ensure the presence of five Connacht players on the pitch.
Italy were game enough to go through a 20-phase play, but Ryan continued his fantastic performance with some hard-tackling and sharp line speed which also epitomised Ireland’s resistance. But Italy deserved their second consolation try by Sarto from Odiete’s long pass, which looked forward.
Ireland’s response was strong, backs interlinking with forwards through multiple phases. The outstanding Ryan again, Van der Flier, Dillane and Henshaw all figured prominently before the space opened up for McFadden, on for a third time and at centre after playing on both wings, to wrap up the scoring.
There was time for one eye-catching piece of support play and deft inside pass by Bealham to link with Dillane. No more tries, but this was heady stuff, and had been fun throughout to watch.
Scoring sequence – 7 mins Trimble try, 5-0; 15 mins Trimble try, Sexton con 12-0; 24 mins Padovani pen 12-3; 27 mins Sexton pen 15-3; 30 mins Stander try 20-3; 40 mins Heaslip try 25-3; (half-time 25-3); 43 mins Payne try, Sexton con 32-3; 49 mins Heaslip try, Sexton con 39-3; 54 mins Cronin try, Madigan con 46-3; 58 mins Odiete try, Haimona con 46-10; 64 mins Madigan try 51-10; 75 mins Sarto try 51-15; 78 mins McFadden try, Madigan con 58-10.
IRELAND: Simon Zebo (Munster); Andrew Trimble (Ulster), Jared Payne (Ulster), Robbie Henshaw (Connacht), Keith Earls (Munster); Jonathan Sexton (Leinster), Conor Murray (Munster); Jack McGrath (Leinster), Rory Best (Ulster) (capt), Mike Ross (Leinster); Donnacha Ryan (Munster), Devin Toner (Leinster); CJ Stander (Munster), Josh van der Flier (Leinster), Jamie Heaslip (Leinster).
Replacements: Fergus McFadden (Leinster) for Trimble (21-29 mins), for Henshaw (37-40 mins), for Payne (72 mins), Seán Cronin (Leinster) for Best, Ian Madigan (Leinster) for Sexton (both 50 mins), Nathan White (Connacht) for Ross, Ultan Dillane (Connacht) for Toner (both 55 mins), Kieran Marmion (Connacht) for Murray (60 mins), Rhys Ruddock (Leinster) for Stander (62 mins), Finlay Bealham (Connacht) for McGrath (65 mins).
ITALY: David Odiete (Marchiol Mogliano); Leonardo Sarto (Zebre), Michele Campagnaro (Exeter Chiefs), Gonzalo Garcia (Zebre), Mattia Bellini (Petrarca Padova); Edoardo Padovani (Zebre), Guglielmo Palazzani (Zebre); Andrea Lovotti (Zebre), Davide Giazzon (Benetton Treviso), Dario Chistolini (Zebre); George Biagi (Zebre), Marco Fuser (Benetton Treviso), Francesco Minto (Benetton Treviso), Alessandro Zanni (Benetton Treviso), Sergio Parisse (Stade Francais) (capt).
Replacements: Quintin Geldenhuys (Zebre) for Fuser (27 mins), Braam Steyn (Benetton Treviso) for Biagi (36 mins), Pietro Ceccarelli (Zebre) for Chistolini (Zebre) for Ceccarelli (55 mins), Oliviero Fabiani (Zebre) for Giazzon, Kelly Haimona (Zebre) for Garcia (both 56 mins), Luke McLean (Benetton Treviso) for Padovani (60 mins), Alberto Lucchese (Benetton Treviso) for Palazzani (62 mins), Matteo Zanusso (Benetton Treviso) for Lovotti (72 mins).
Referee: Angus Gardner (Australia).