Ireland prevail in bruising encounter
Italy 9 Ireland 38:There will be huge satisfaction amongst the Irish players that they managed to negotiate a confrontation that was always bruising and at time downright spiteful. Italy decided that the best way for them to prosper was to turn the game into a street fight initially, a gambit that initially proved successful.
Ireland were distracted by their opponents negativity and it was only at the end of each half that their enterprise was heavily rewarded on the scoreboard. While the visitors managed to play only fitfully in the first 40 minutes, it was tries from Luke Fitzgerald and David Wallace either side of the interval that effectively ended this game as a contest.
The Irish victory was underpinned by several outstanding individual performances, Jamie Heaslip, Stephen Ferris, David Wallace and Paul O'Connell up front while Brian O'Driscoll and Fitzgerald stood out in game changing cameos. Coach Declan Kidney will be happy, that Ireland did not lose their heads, literally in one or two cases, and managed to get through a very fractious afternoon.
A glance at the Italian players' faces during the anthems revealed just how emotionally charged several players were and within 46 seconds the ugly side of that lack of control manifested itself in a shockingly dangerous high tackle by Italian fullback Andrea Masi on his counterpart Rob Kearney.
Masi's reaction suggested that he wasn't unduly concerned and he was extremely lucky that the colour of the card he saw was yellow. As the initial passages of the contest unfolded it became clear that Italy were trying to bully Ireland, both legally and illegally, hoping to distract the visitors away from simply playing rugby.
It certainly had an effect as Ireland made a succession of errors, handling and tactical, as the home side pursued an aggressive line of defence. Ireland appeared discommoded by the latent physicality of the opposition and their patterns were pockmarked by error and a lack of assurance in their handling.
Donncha O'Callaghan was twice penalised, once for offside, once for a high tackle and the upshot was that Italy's Australian born outhalf Luke McLean kicked a couple of penalties, to go with the one he tagged on when David Wallace was adjudged to not release the ball in the tackle. Ronan O'Gara was struggling to establish the patterns that Ireland wanted, whether it was field position or attacking out wide.
He was turned over a couple of times in the tackle and matters got worse on 31 minutes when Gonzalo Canale charged down his attempted punt and the Irish outhalf tackled the Italian without the ball, an infraction that earned him a yellow card.
Fortunately for the visitors the Italians were even more undisciplined, prop Martin Castrogiovanni taking time out from his trash talking to concede penalties on three separate occasions.
Ireland were playing into a stiff breeze and for many of the 12 penalties Italy conceded Ireland couldn't go for the posts. The visitors though did manage to provide a couple of moments of quality rugby in the opening 40 minutes, the first owing to a large dollop of good fortune.
Italy were attacking in the Irish 22 when Tommy Bowe intercepted a pass and raced 70 metres to score a try close to the posts: perhaps now those who carp about his pace might finally acknowledge the error.
O'Gara converted but for Ireland's second try was in the sin bin. Peter Stringer came on for a bloodied Paddy Wallace – Gordon D'Arcy was introduced for the Ulster player at half-time – with Tomás O'Leary shifting to outhalf.
Ireland's second try was a score crafted by patience initially and then a brilliant offload from the excellent Stephen Ferris, facilitating a typically excellent line from Luke Fitzgerald, the latter crossing untouched.
Rob Kearney converted with the last kick of the half. The Italians had lost prop Salvatore Perugini to the sin bin in the two and a half minute preamble to the try, guilty of dangerously driving underneath Paul O'Connell at the lineout.
The control and direction that had been missing for much of Ireland's play was very much in evidence from the restart, O'Gara having recalibrated his game, kicked intelligently and with his usual finesse. It was from one of those clever raking kicks to the corner that the visitors grabbed their third try of the game.
Heaslip surged onto a great offload from Brian O'Driscoll and ran 40 metres, only to be hauled down a metre short. From a close-in ruck, David Wallace received the ball, ghosted between two Italian forwards and showed his customary strength to ride two tackles as he forced his way over. O'Gara converted and then added a penalty on 48 minutes to nudge Ireland out to a 24-9 lead.
The game itself was becoming a stop-start affair punctuated by referee Chris White's frequent whistle. The Englishman might have been a bit over officious but he wasn't being helped by both sides and pointedly Italy. There had been a constant niggle throughout the game and Mauro Bergamasco was blessed not to have been spotted by touch judge Roman Poite – the full two and a half feet away – for throwing a punch at Brian O'Driscoll.
Denied the continuity they craved Ireland could only sporadically muster cohesive patterns. Heaslip made a searing break that could and possibly should have led to a try, O'Driscoll managing to slide outside the cover but the for the most part, the only moment of note was the introduction of the Australian born Tom Court to make his debut for Ireland when coming on as a second half replacement.
O'Connell led by example up front as he made some rampaging runs, supported by O'Callaghan, David Wallace, John Hayes and Heaslip. Quick thinking by the outstanding Luke Fitzgerald saw him take a lineout, D'Arcy straightened and returned the ball to allow the wing grab his second try of the game.
O'Gara converted and as Malcolm O'Kelly took back his record as the most capped Irish player ever when introduced late-on, O'Driscoll also managed a milestone of his own when intercepting Masi's long pass and racing 70 metres for a try, which O'Gara converted.
The Irish captain is now second alone in the standings with 19 tries for the tournament.
It was fitting finish albeit that the final scoreline offered a misleading take on what had been a bruising afternoon down the road from the Coliseum.
Scoring sequence: 4 mins: McLean penalty, 3-0; 14: McLean penalty, 6-0; 18: Bowe try, O'Gara conversion, 6-7; 23: McLean penalty, 9-7; 39: Fitzgerald try, Kearney conversion, 9-14. Half-time: 9-14. 46: Wallace try, O'Gara conversion, 9-21; 48: O'Gara penalty, 9-24; 75: Fitzgerald try, O'Gara conversion, 9-31; 77: O'Driscoll try, O'Gara conversion, 9-38.
Italy: A Masi (Biarritz); K Roberston (Viadana), G Canale (Clermont Auvergne), Mirco Bergamasco (Stade Francais), M Pratichetti (Calvisano); L McLean (Calvisano), P Griffen (Calvisano); S Perugini (Toulouse), F Ongaro (Saracens), M Castrogiovanni (Leicester); S Dellape (Toulon), T Reato (Rovigo); A Zanni (Calvisano), Mauro Bergamasco (Stade Francais), S Parisse (Stade Francais). Replacements: A Bacchetti (Rovigo) for Roberston 19 mins; C Nieto (Gloucester) for Castrogiovanni 32 mins; C Festuccia (Racing Metro Paris) for Ongaro 41 mins; G Garcia (Calvisano) for Canale 46 mins; C del Fava (Ulster) for Dellape 47 mins; J Sole (Viadana) for Reato 47 mins; Castrogiovanni for Perugini 58 mins; G Tonliotti (Capitolina) for McLean 67 mins.
Ireland: R Kearney (Leinster); T Bowe (Ospreys), B O'Driscoll (Leinster, capt), P Wallace (Ulster), L Fitzgerald (Leinster); R O'Gara (Munster), T O'Leary (Munster); M Horan (Munster), J Flannery (Munster), J Hayes (Munster); P O'Connell (Munster), D O'Callaghan (Munster); S Ferris (Ulster), D Wallace (Munster), J Heaslip (Leinster). Replacements:P Stringer (Munster) for Paddy Wallace 33 mins; G D'Arcy (Leinster) for Paddy Wallace h-time; T Court (Ulster) for Horan 54 mins; R Best (Ulster) for Flannery 59 mins; D Leamy (Munster) for Ferris 62 mins; Stringer for O'Leary 71 mins; M O'Kelly for (Leinster) O'Connell 72 mins; Ferris for Leamy 74 mins: G Murphy (Leicester) for Kearney 78 mins.
Referee: C White (England)
Sin Bin:A Masi (Italy) 46 seconds; R O'Gara (Ireland) 31 mins; S Perugini (Italy) 35 mins