Ireland avoided a shock defeat to Italy at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome this afternoon as they eventually emerged with a four-try 16-26 victory.
Ireland were 16-12 behind at halftime and deservedly so. Their play, not only in the opening 40 minutes but in the second half too, was full of uncharacteristic unforced errors with a clear nervous energy running through the team.
Conor Murray’s 67th-minute try secured the bonus-point win but there will be a lot of soul-searching over the next two weeks before Ireland take on France at the Aviva Stadium.
Although Ireland took a commanding lead at the midway point of the first half, the sloppiness which they showed throughout this game was evident in the opening moments of this tie.
Lineout malfunctions, inaccurate passing and poor discipline was a feature throughout the first couple of minutes.
Ireland’s first major opportunity came after five minutes when a scrum penalty saw Ireland go to the corner only for Sean Cronin to overthrow the lineout which allowed the Italians to clear.
Two minutes later, Joe Schmidt’s side kicked to the corner again but from the resulting lineout maul, Italy did brilliantly to stop it its tracks to win the turnover.
On 11 minutes, Ireland got the first try of the game and it came from Ireland’s best passage of play in the opening 40 minutes. The visitors went through 18 phases which culminated in Chris Farrell being stopped just short of the line. From the next phase, Conor Murray passed to Quinn Roux who was able to get over from close range. Sexton converted to give Ireland a 0-7 lead.
Bundee Aki failed a HIA which meant Ireland had to reshuffle their backline. Farrell moved to inside centre as Keith Earls came in off his wing to partner him at 13. Andrew Conway moved to the right wing as a replacement for the permanently removed Aki.
The away side looked dangerous with Earls at 13 as he danced his way through the Italian defence but Conway couldn’t get on the end of his chip through.
Italy’s first opportunity for points came on 17 minutes when Sean O’Brien was pinged for playing the ball in an offside position but Tommaso Allan’s kick at goal drifted wide.
O’Brien was at fault again soon after when he didn’t release in the tackle and this time, Allan found his target to get Italy off the mark.
From the resulting restart, Dean Budd failed to collect as the ball bounced around only for Jacob Stockdale to react quickest to sprint up the near touchline to score Ireland’s second try. Sexton was inaccurate with his conversion attempt but Ireland looked to be in a good position at 3-12.
Italy closed the gap five minutes later when Cronin infringed offside as Allan kicked the resulting penalty to put just six points between the teams.
In the final 10 minutes, Italy looked very dangerous. Peter O’Mahony was pinged for not rolling away which led to the home side quick-tapping the penalty. Conor O’Shea’s side broke through the Irish defence but Ireland just about managed to clear the ball when the Italians kicked ahead.
A mistake from Ireland led to Italy’s first try of the game as another overthrown lineout saw Italy gain possession quickly. The excellent Jayden Hayward sliced through Ireland’s line before they sent the ball wide to Edoardo Padovani who touched down in the corner.
On the stroke of halftime, Italy landed another hammer blow when Murray had the ball ripped from him as he was about to pass the ball from the base of a ruck. Italy broke quickly and after a couple of phases, Luca Morisi crossed the line which a disorganised Ireland defence could do little about.
The sides went in at the break with Italy leading 16-12 much to the dismay of Irish supporters.
Ireland took the lead 10 minutes into the second half when Earls used his footwork to himself close enough to the line to reach over and ground the ball. Sexton was receiving some treatment so Murray took on kicking duties and he landed the conversion to get Ireland back into the lead at 16-19.
Ireland’s unforced errors continued for the next 15 minutes until a powerful lineout maul saw Murray take the ball out to dot down and secure the bonus point. The Munster man converted his own try to give his side a 16-26 lead with over 10 minutes to play.
The final 10 minutes saw Jack Carty make his international debut as a 78th-minute substitution for Sexton as Ireland played out the rest of the match knowing they just about got the job done.
Italy: Jayden Hayward, Edoardo Padovani, Michele Campagnaro, Luca Morisi, Angelo Esposito, Tommaso Allen, Tito Tebaldi, Andrew Lovotti (Traore 61′), Leonardo Ghiraldini, Simeone Ferrari (Pasquali 52′), Federico Ruzza, Dean Budd, Jimmy Tuivaiti (Sisi 52′), Maxime Mbanda (Zanni 43′), Braam Steyn.
Replacements: Luca Bigi, Cherif Traore, Tizano Pasquali, David Sisi, Alessandro Zanni, Guglielmo Palazzani, Ian McKinley, Tommaso Castello.
Ireland: Rob Kearney, Keith Earls, Chris Farrell, Bundee Aki (Conway 12′), Jacob Stockdale, Johnny Sexton (Carty 78′), Conor Murray (Cooney 71′), Dave Kilcoyne (McGrath 63′), Sean Cronin (Scannell 48′), Tadhg Furlong (Ryan 63′), Ultan Dillane (Henderson 32′ 39′), Quinn Roux (Henderson 58′), Peter O’Mahony (c), Sean O’Brien (van der Flier 58′), Jordi Murphy.
Replacements: Niall Scannell, Jack McGrath, John Ryan, Iain Henderson, Josh van der Flier, John Cooney, Jack Carty, Andrew Conway.