UPWARDS and onwards. This was a performance of self-affirmation from Ireland who, after duking it out in a dogged opening period, raised their game in the second half to blast their way into a quarter-final showdown with the equally impressive Welsh next weekend.
If it was a progressive display by Declan Kidney's side, it was also one in the eye for Italy, who resorted to nasty, underhand tactics when they realised they were being bossed in the key areas. Cheap shots abounded -- sly digs, late charges, dangerous use of the hand -- you name it, the Italians tried it as they realised their bullish bid to reach a first World Cup quarter-final was foundering.
The Irish, while never backing down, commendably kept their cool and although there were some serious skirmishes taking place off the ball, none should come back to bite their quarter-final prospects, if there is any fairness in the disciplinary process.
When Keith Earls (in the finishing form of his life) crossed for his second try on full-time, Irish players made a point of defiantly emphasising the scoreline to Italy's primary boot boys -- the best response in provocative and trying circumstances. There is too much at stake to lose the head.
Italy are unlikely to escape censure, nor should they, but that is not Ireland's problem now and thoughts will be immediately trained on the formidable prospect of the Welsh in Wellington.
Wales played some scintillating rugby earlier in the day, but taking apart a disappointing Fijian side with negligible front-five power is not the same as going up against Ireland, who, just as they did against Australia, used forward dominance as a platform and claustrophobic defence to put the squeeze on.
Les Kiss is having a big tournament and Ireland kept the Italians tryless, just as they had the Wallabies, to end up with a points conceded tally of 34 from four games -- the same as Wales and England, and second only to South Africa as the lowest of the pool stages.
The three tries they have conceded came against the lesser lights of Russia and the USA, which points to a drop in intensity in games Ireland are expected to win. The intensity levels here were back up to the mark they hit in Eden Park a couple of weeks previously and, revelling in their first dry conditions of the tournament, Ireland's backline, finally, began to motor.
The indoor setting of the excellently conceived Otago Stadium added considerably to a memorable atmosphere where the Irish fan base (established and recently acquired) drowned out any semblance of Italian resistance.
Ireland have now produced more at this one tournament than at any of the previous six and, Italian tactics aside, the only sour note was the injury to Rory Best, which, judging by his distraught demeanour leaving the field, could leave Kidney without a key member of the side.
The Ulster hooker has been playing the best rugby of his career and, after the loss of Jerry Flannery a few weeks ago, his absence would leave Ireland short of experience in a crucial position. Sean Cronin has a couple of years international involvement behind him and considerable ability to go with it, but Best would be a massive loss.
Ireland's other leaders came through strongly. Cian Healy and Mike Ross, provoked during the week and throughout a torrid scrum battle, picked up the gauntlet thrown down by Italy coach Nick Mallett and flung it back in his face.
The hit, drive and secondary support were all on the money and Ireland made nonsense of the notion that they had the inferior scrum by consistently disrupting the Italians, setting up a solid base for themselves and winning a stream of penalties.
Donncha O'Callaghan and Paul O'Connell put in another ultra-physical shift, before O'Connell was withdrawn as a precautionary measure with half an hour to go, and the back-row, once again, was immense.
Ronan O'Gara ran the show from out-half, using all his experience to keep Italy under the cosh with boot and hand, while striking the ball beautifully off the tee to the tune of 16 points, while Jonathan Sexton looked to have eradicated his yips with two excellent kicks on his introduction.
Conor Murray took his chance splendidly at No 9; the man who was playing for Munster 'A' against Bristol a little over seven months ago now looks like one of the most accomplished scrum-halves on rugby's grandest stage.
There was an encouraging amount of attacking invention on display, with all three tries very well conceived -- Earls being cleverly worked into space twice after the defence had been softened up and O'Driscoll cleverly exploiting the super line taken by Bowe.
Furthermore, Ireland had claims on two more touchdowns only to be denied by dubious decisions, both involving Bowe, who was wrongly called back for a forward pass from the excellent Sean O'Brien and then held back when following through for a certain score.
Irritating, but never going to be result-threatening and so to the Welsh.
The memory of another wrong decision in Cardiff last spring, when Mike Phillips was allowed to score after a clearly illegal throw has not dissipated ("We want payback for what happened," said Jamie Heaslip afterwards) and, thankfully, Wales are finally starting to attract some hype after cruising along almost unnoticed through the early games.
It would help if coach Warren Gatland and his players started to talk themselves up, because the Irish won't make that mistake, and any psychological spur is an advantage (as was the case for the Grand Slam in 2009) ahead of what promises to be another tight tussle.
Ireland won't look too far ahead (why start now?) because the quality of this Wales outfit simply does not permit complacency. However, the Irish know they have the capacity to go further and, as forwards coach Gert Smal animatedly stressed, an overwhelming desire to keep this World Cup buzz going.
"It's energising," said Smal. "It's a high-pressure game, that's why you play the game as a player or a coach. It's for these moments, to show what you can do under pressure.
"It's like a drug. When it's not there, there's something missing."
Time for another hit next Saturday.
IRELAND -- R Kearney; T Bowe, B O'Driscoll (capt, A Trimble 72), G D'arcy, K Earls; R O'Gara (J Sexton 66), C Murray (E Reddan 72); C Healy (T Court 72), R Best (S Cronin 53), M Ross; D O'Callaghan, P O'Connell (D Ryan 58); S Ferris (D Leamy 72), S O'Brien, J Heaslip. Tries: O'Driscoll, Earls 2; Cons: O'Gara 2, Sexton; Pens: O'Gara 4, Sexton.
ITALY -- A Masi; T Benvenuti, G Canale, G Garcia, Mirco Bergamasco; L Orquera (R Bocchino 40), F Semenzato (E Gori 56); S Perugini, L Ghiraldini (capt, F Ongaro), M Castrogiovanni (A Lo Cicero 35); Q Geldenhuys, C van Zyl (M Bortolami 61); A Zanni, Mauro Bergamasco (P Derbyshire 48), S Parisse. Pens: Mirco Bergamasco 2.
REF -- J Kaplan (South Africa)