Ireland claimed an unconvincing 26-16 win against Italy in Rome on Sunday, writes SIMON BORCHARDT.
The bonus-point victory takes Ireland up to third position on the Six Nations log, one point behind England and three behind Wales. The defending champions will face France (home) and Wales (away) in the final two rounds of the tournament.
Ireland coach Joe Schmidt made just four changes to his starting XV for this match, all in the pack, yet his team were fortunate to trail an Italian side ranked 15th in the world by only four points at half-time.
The Irish upped their game slightly in the second half, though, and ultimately did enough to secure a win that keeps them in contention for the Six Nations title.
This was a scrappy performance from the visitors, though. They butchered two early try-scoring opportunities, but made no mistake when in the 11th minute former Stormers lock Quinn Roux barged over at close range after a 19-phase attack.
Italy were forced to make 54 tackles in the opening 16 minutes, and when they finally did get a chance to get on the board, Tommy Allan’s penalty-goal attempt was off-target.
Italy, though, played themselves back into the game, with a promising attack ending when scrumhalf Tito Tebaldi was penalised close to the Irish tryline after a double movement. But the referee was playing advantage and Allan slotted the simple penalty.
Ireland responded straight from the restart, which Italy criminally failed to secure. Jacob Stockdale picked up the loose ball and the winger raced away to score his 14th try in 17 Tests.
Sexton missed the conversion and Allan kicked a penalty at the other end to make it a six-point game.
In the 33rd minute, an overthrown Irish lineout allowed Italy to attack again. Fullback Jayden Hayward was brought down just short of the tryline after a storming run and the ball was sent wide to right wing Edoardo Padovani, who cantered over.
Italy took the lead just before the break after Tebaldi stole possession at an Irish breakdown inside the hosts’ 22 and booted the ball ahead. It was picked up by Padovani on the right wing, and while flanker Maxime Mbanda almost blew the opportunity by not passing when he had an overlap on the left side of the field, midfielder Luca Morisi was still able to score. Allan, though, missed both conversions and his side could have led by more than 16-12 at half-time.
It was Ireland who came out firing after the break, taking a quick penalty tap close to the Italian line and scoring through winger Keith Earls 10 phases later. Conor Murray added the conversion.
The Irish looked set to get their fourth try at the start of the final quarter when Earls ran a great line to break through the Italian defence. But he was brought down in the opposition 22 and his offload to Stockdale was knocked on.
However, Ireland did get their bonus-point try in the 67th minute when Murray went over from a lineout driving maul.
To their credit, Italy refused to lie down and got to within inches of Ireland’s tryline with seven minutes to go, only to concede a penalty. They would also miss out on a losing bonus point when replacement Ian McKinley’s 85th-minute penalty goal went wide.
Italy – Tries: Edoardo Padovani, Luca Morisi. Penalties: Tommy Allan (2).
Ireland –Tries: Quinn Roux, Jacob Stockdale, Keith Earls, Conor Murray. Conversions: Johnny Sexton, Murray (2).
Italy – 15 Jayden Hayward, 14 Edoardo Padovani, 13 Michele Campagnaro, 12 Luca Morisi, 11 Angelo Esposito, 10 Tommy Allan, 9 Tito Tebaldi, 8 Abraham Steyn, 7 Maxime Mbanda , 6 Jimmy Tuivaiti, 5 Dean Budd, 4 Federico Ruzza , 3 Simone Ferrari, 2 Leonardo Ghiraldini, 1 Andrea Lovotti.
Subs: 16 Luca Bigi, 17 Cherif Traore’, 18 Tiziano Pasquali, 19 David Sisi, 20 Alessandro Zanni, 21 Guglielmo Palazzani, 22 Ian McKinley, 23 Tommaso Castello.
Ireland – 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Keith Earls, 13 Chris Farrell, 12 Bundee Aki, 11 Jacob Stockdale, 10 Johnny Sexton, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Jordi Murphy, 7 Sean O’Brien, 6 Peter O’Mahony, 5 Quinn Roux, 4 Ultan Dillane, 3 Tadhg Furlong, 2 Sean Cronin, 1 Dave Kilcoyne.
Subs: 16 Niall Scannell, 17 Jack McGrath, 18 John Ryan, 19 John Ryan, 20 Josh van der Flier, 21 John Cooney, 22 Jack Carty, 23 Andrew Conway.