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Ireland hammer Italy but big win marred by injuries to key men

Ireland 56 Italy 19

10 February 2018; Robbie Henshaw of Ireland leaves the pitch with Ireland team doctor Ciaran Cosgrave during the Six Nations Rugby Championship match between Ireland and Italy at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
10 February 2018; Robbie Henshaw of Ireland leaves the pitch with Ireland team doctor Ciaran Cosgrave during the Six Nations Rugby Championship match between Ireland and Italy at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Ruaidhri O’Connor

Rarely can a big win have come at quite a cost for Ireland.

Joe Schmidt’s team breathed life into their Grand Slam charge but the loss of Tadhg Furlong and Robbie Henshaw to injury could have big ramifications for their title ambitions.

Furlong limped off with what looked like a hamstring issue after less than five minutes, while Henshaw suffered a serious shoulder injury while scoring his second try.

An update on both will be provided by the IRFU but the initial signs are not good, with Henshaw a particular concern.

On top of those two, the decision to withdraw Iain Henderson and Jack Conan at half-time could point to further headaches for the coach ahead of the visit of Wales in two weeks’ time.

It soured a strong performance and big win for the men in green who were simply too strong for an Italian side who struggled from the off.

Ireland were so comfortable that they were able to withdraw Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton after 51 minutes. Enough damage had been done by that point.

Italy were well off the pace and the home side punished them time and time again before allowing in three tries during garbage time towards the end.

Schmidt’s side started with intent but after suffering a brief scare when Johnny Sexton went down clutching his knee before continuing, the home side lost Furlong to a suspected hamstring injury after less than five minutes.

That blow has wider ramifications for their title tilt, but Andrew Porter came on and hit the ground running.

Sexton turned down a kickable penalty to go for the corner and Ireland almost scored through Dan Leavy before Conor Murray was held up over the line.

From the scrum, Jacob Stockdale went close before a couple of big forward carries set up the platform for Murray to hit Robbie Henshaw on a hard line and nothing was going to stop him from close range. Sexton converted.

Clearly, tries were on the agenda and when Sergio Parisse threw a crazy loose pass after receiving a Sexton chip the home side turned the turnover into points by working the ball wide through Iain Henderson, Murray and Stockdale before Jack Conan did well to draw the last defender and send Murray down the left touch-line to score.

Again, Sexton delivered the extras and Ireland were celebrating again soon after as Bundee Aki celebrated his first try for his adopted country – following the Henshaw template with a hard line off a Murray pass after the green maul had obliterated the Italians.

Ireland kept the foot on the pedal and might have scored the bonus point through Peter O’Mahony after a well-worked Henshaw break from a pre-planned move, but the Corkman didn’t read Murray’s intentions and the pass bounced off his shoulder.

Referee Romain Poite was playing advantage, however, and Rory Best chose the 5m scrum.

The first attempt at attacking went awry, but Parisse had given away another penalty and this time they went to the corner and from a messy lineout Keith Earls almost broke free before Murray knocked on his off-load.

Again, the Italians had strayed offside so Best instructed Sexton go to the corner but again Ireland couldn’t get over the line as the maul came up short and the out-half’s chip was too long for the chasing Earls.

This time Italy hadn’t conceded a penalty, so Ireland had to start again but they didn’t have to wait long for the all-important fourth try.

After all their struggles on their own ball, they thrived on turnover as Leavy poached possession in midfield, Aki raced outside hooker Luca Bigi and released Earls up the right to score.

Joe Schmidt replaced Jack Conan and Iain Henderson with CJ Stander and Quinn Roux at half-time as Ireland went in search of scores to boost their points differential and Henshaw was handed his second on a plate as Parisse threw another loose pass and he raced in.

Unfortunately, he damaged his shoulder in the act of scoring and had to be replaced after Sexton had maintained his 100pc record.

Their sixth try was denied by Poite who got in the way of Peter O’Mahony’s inside pass to Rob Kearney who was away.

They got there in the end with the Irish maul doing the damage for Rory Best to score and Joey Carbery – just on for Sexton – added the extras.

Italy pulled an impressive score back as they punished a loose Kearney kick with Tommaso Castello scorched Leavy on the outside to put Tommaso Allan over for a try that he converted himself.

Ireland hit back through Jacob Stockdale who went over untouched after O’Mahony kept the ball alive at maul-time and Devin Toner and Carbery combined to release the Ulster winger.

With the contest long since decided and the benches almost emptied, the game became looser and looser and the Azzurri managed a second try as Matteo Minozzi collected Carbery’s kick, beat Larmour in a one-on-one and then found Parisse who threw a long pass inside that missed everyone but popped up for the scrum-half Edoardo Gori to score.

Allan converted but again the visiting side proved their own worst enemies as they handed Ireland their eighth try on a plate. Stockdale read Castello’s mind and picked his pass off before rounding the covering Jayden Hayward to score.

Carbery nailed the touchline conversion, but Ireland found themselves under their own posts once again as they punished Ireland’s sluggish defensive line to put Minozzi over in the corner.

After two poor defensive moments, Larmour showed his attacking brilliance by stepping his way past a couple of defenders but then Carbery needed Earls to save his blushes as Mattia Bellini intercepted the out-half’s pass but couldn’t out-pace the covering Ireland winger.

That rounded things off as Ireland kept their foot on the gas but they will only learn in time how costly the injuries will prove.

IRELAND – R Kearney; K Earls, R Henshaw, B Aki, J Stockdale; J Sexton (J Carbery 51), C Murray (K Marmion 51); J McGrath (C Healy 68), R Best (capt) (S Cronin 61), T Furlong (A Porter 5); I Henderson, D Toner; P O’Mahony, D Leavy, J Conan.

ITALY --  M Minozzi; T Benvenuti, T Boni (J Hayward 55), T Castello, M Bellini; T Allan, M Violi (E Gori 58); N Quaglio (A Lovotti 37), L Bigi (L Ghiraldini 55), SP Ferrari; A Zanni, D Budd; SL Negri (F Ruzza 58), B Steyn (M Mbanda 45), S Parisse (capt).

Referee: R Poite (France)

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