Big things are expected of Ireland at this World Cup and, after an indifferent warm-up campaign, they hit the ground running with a comprehensive dismissal of lowly Canada in Cardiff.
The Six Nations champions scored seven tries through seven different players to rack up a half century of points and, even if it was far from perfect, there was plenty for them to build-on in the weeks ahead.
There appear to be no significant injury worries out of the opener, with Cian Healy making his return to action after five months out, got a quarter of the match under his belt and almost marked it by scoring his side’s final try only to knock on over the line.
Johnny Sexton was crowned man of the match and scored a fine try to cap his fine display and the form of the out-half will be particularly pleasing for Joe Schmidt.
They won’t be getting carried away, however. Canada are ranked 19th in the world and there are far stiffer tests to come. The men in red were game, but limited, opponents and when they lost their captain Jamie Cudmore to a first-half yellow card, Ireland punished them with three tries in 10 minutes and then secured the bonus point before half-time.
Expected to win by a handsome margin in front of a highly partisan 68.520 crowd at the Millennium Stadium, Ireland looked to play with an expansive game from the off but some of their early handling wasn’t where it should have been.
The green scrum and lineout provided Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray with the perfect platform to attack and the scrum-half showed his threat with a brilliant break up the left wing after Jack McGrath had dominated Doug Wooldridge at a scrum on half-way.
Although that ultimately came to nothing and Canada enjoyed some possession soon after, it was clear that Ireland could dominate if they could find their rhythm.
The North Americans had a chance to open the scoring when Gordon McRorie pulled a penalty wide from half-way and, instead, Sexton got Ireland off the mark with a penalty after a strong Luke Fitzgerald carry as Canada failed to roll away.
The Six Nations champions were beginning to find their way and, after a strong Rob Kearney chase that forced a penalty on his opposite number Matt Evans, Sexton tapped a penalty and went right, freeing Fitzgerald who made big gains.
Sexton switched the play left and Iain Henderson took the ball on when he might have passed, but Cudmore got his hands in the ruck and was sent to the sin-bin by referee Glen Jackson.
It would prove hugely costly. Ireland went to the lineout from the penalty and Rory Best found Peter O’Mahony, allowing the forwards drive over and Sean O’Brien score their first try of the tournament.
Minutes later, Henderson powered over from close range after Paul O’Connell was initially held up over the line. Again, Ireland’s scrum provided the platform and there was no stopping the Ulster lock with Best helping him along for good measure.
The forwards were having all the fun, so the backs decided to get in on the act and Sexton – who was getting better by the minutes, played a one-two with O’Brien before outpacing the Canadian defence to score in the corner.
Cudmore returned to a very different game with the score 21-0 as Sexton missed the conversion.
It wasn’t to matter as the favourites secured the bonus point within 35 minutes; moving the ball wide to O’Brien off good lineout ball, before swiftly switching wings where Fitzgerald found Dave Kearney who dummied past DTH van der Merwe to glide over.
Sexton converted, leaving Ireland with the extra point as half-time approached and they switched off in the final moments as Canada finally got some field position and thought they’d scored, only for Nathan Hirayama’s pass to be adjudged forward.
Ireland suffered a blow early in the second-half when Paul O’Connell was sin-binned for playing the ball in an offside positions, although replays showed he was perfectly entitled to get involved as it was still open play.
Still, it gave Ireland an opportunity to play some 14 on 15 and they held out on their own line as Canada went in search of a try.
The next 10 minutes were a tad frantic, but even before O’Connell returned, Ireland had wrested control of the game back through their maul and the boot of Sexton who began to pin Canada back through the boot.
After the captain came back on, Ireland won a turnover in the opposition ’22, with Fitzgerald going close before Best was bundled into touch.
Keith Earls spilled the ball when he had a massive overlap outside him, while Jamie Heaslip made an excellent break but chose to pass to O’Mahony on his left shoulder when slipping it to Murray on his right might have resulted in a try.
Ireland’s discipline under pressure was questionable and they gave away too many penalties, while their inability to take the numerous chances presenting them was a worry.
However, their defence was largely solid and the comfortable margin allowed Schmidt empty the bench and hand Cian Healy 20 minutes on his return after neck surgery.
The bench made its presence felt as they ended a half an hour without a score as a strong maul was followed up by a hard carry from Jared Payne who came up short, before Sean Cronin barrelled over.
Madigan converted, but Canada got the try the probably deserved when Payne’s chip went straight to van der Merwe and he raced clear to score.
The game was fully opened up and, from turnover ball, Ian Madigan spotted a massive overlap out left and Rob Kearney helped the ball over to Earls who raced clear. Van der Merwe covered across, but the Munster wing unselfishly fed the ball back to his full-back who scored under the posts.
Madigan converted, before breaking clear minutes later to put Payne over the line so he could convert again to make it a half century of points.
IRELAND – Rob Kearney; Dave Kearney, Jared Payne, Luke Fitzgerald (Simon Zebo 74), Keith Earls; Johnny Sexton (Ian Madigan 56), Conor Murray (Eoin Reddan 66); Jack McGrath (Cian Healy 60), Rory Best (Sean Cronin 60), Mike Ross (Nathan White 60); Iain Henderson, Paul O’Connell (capt) (Donnacha Ryan 74); Peter O’Mahony, Sean O’Brien (Chris Henry 63), Jamie Heaslip.
CANADA – Matt Evans (Liam Underwood h-t); Jeff Hassler (Conor Trainor h-t), Ciaran Hearn, Nick Blevins, DTH van der Merwe; Nathan Hirayama, Gordon McRorie (Phil Mack 72); Hubert Buydens (Djustice Sears-Duru 48), Ray Barkwell (Benoit Piffero 63), Doug Wooldridge (Andrew Tiedemann 66); Brett Beukeboom, Jamie Cudmore (capt); Kyle Gilmour (Jebb Sinclair 48), John Moonlight, Aaron Carpenter.
Referee: Glen Jackson (New Zealand)