Italian job complete as sloppy Ireland start with Rome victory
Italy 3 Ireland 26
Ireland kicked off the defence of their RBS Six Nations crown with an ultimately convincing victory against a dogged Italian side in Rome.
Joe Schmidt's side will hope the championship matches this effort; stuttering at the beginning before eventually finding their rhythm.
It has always been the pattern in this fixture, save for the stunning defeat on their last visit here; at least those demons were finally exorcised.
Ian Keatley, who had a composed afternoon before the return of Jonny Sexton to face France was flawless from the tee as Ireland led 9-3 at the break and hen 12-3 by the hour mark before the Italians inevitably wilted.
Tries from Conor Murray and Tommy O'Donnell broke the back of the Italian challenge and, although Ireland were not convincing at all times, the score-line was.
The will be better next week. Sexton's return may not be he only change.
Ireland were dealt a stunning late blow just before the kick-off when Sean O'Brien was ruled out with a hamstring injury, postponing his return to the senior side after 14 months on the sidelines.
O'Donnell stepped up from the bench with Ulsterman Robbie Diack, one of two players brought to Rome to cover such withdrawals, was promoted to the bench.
Hooker Rory Best also departed prematurely after smacking his head in a fearsome tackle early in the second-half.
As befitting a side suffering such a late disruption, they started tentatively, with slack service from rucks and Best slamming Jack McGrath's shoulder blades with a lineout.
However, an early scrum penalty calmed frayed nerves and when Italy tried to run the ball from defence, Ireland subsequently secured an opening penalty chance for Ian Keatley which he knocked over with aplomb.
Keatley's nerves didn't settle and a poor kick, then pass, hinted at his inexperience on his first Six Nations start; in fairness, his team were struggling to convince despite their dominance of possession and territory.
For all that. they benefited from another Italian mistake when Luke McClean played the ball in an offside position after Andrea Masi knocked on Conor Murray's box kick. Keatley was at his most composed from the tee and Ireland led 6-0 as we entered the second quarter; they seemed content to thrive off inevitable mistakes from the home side although their maul was now beginning to make inroads in a desperately scrappy affair.
When even the great white hope of Irish rugby, Robbie Henshaw, knocked on after a slick passing move, it summed up the frustration of a performance that was almost too anxious to produce results.
Ireland wasted a good attacking opportunity deep in Italian territory in this fashion, going through multiple phases without achieving much ground before Simon Zebo was pinged for not releasing.
Again, though, they would profit from an Italian error; after being offside from a Garryowen, Keatley fired his side into the corner.
The Italians then conspired to illegally dis-assemble the maul - their seventh penalty concession of the half - and Keatley slotted the kick for 9-0 in the 36th minute. Steady as she goes.
Italy had their best period as the half ended, winning two penalties deep in Irish territory, before Paul O'Connell took Josh Furno out in the lineout.
Kelly Haimona, having spurned the first of those penalties, this time made the away side taste the medicine and, as the 30 players trudged to the tunnel, 9-3 would have made better reading for the home side.
It was ugly stuff, indeed, but the assumption is that Ireland will get better with more time together and when they include more ball-carrying options in their team.
Ireland began the second-half by dominating he ball but after multiple phases, they almost allowed an intercept. The signs of rust were visible everywhere.
But gaps were constantly appearing; the excellent Jared Payne nearly got in after a sweet pass from the lively Simon Zebo and Italy struggled to get out of the half.
Italy were penalised for wheeling the scrum in the 57th minute and Keatley didn't err for a 12-3 lead and the finishing line was already in sight.
Ireland's pressure was now incessant; two maul offences propelled Leonardo Ghiraldini to he sin bin in the 64th minute; within seconds Conor Murray had sniped for the line to score the game's only try.
Keatley's fifth successive kick pushed the lead to a now impregnable 19-3 and now the points race could be begin in earnest.
Ian Madigan came on for Keatley to help exploit the tiring Italians; his pass opened up a huge hole vacated by Andrea Masi in midfield, allowing Tommy O'Donnell to gallop virtually unmolested on a 45-yard dash under the posts.
It was his second international try in just his seventh cap; Madigan added the simple extras. The heavens had opened, albeit not quite the floodgates.
Italy, muted throughout, did have the last word when Haimona thought he had scored in the final minute.
Unfortunately for him, the officials, correctly, did not.
Italy: A Masi (G Venditti 77); L Sarto, M Campagnaro (T Allan 64), L Morisi, L McClean; K Haimona, E Gori; M Aguero (A De Marchi 55), L Ghiraldini, M Castrogiovanni (D Chistolini 70), G Biagi (M Fuser 75), J Furno, A Zanni (M Barbini 48), F Minto, S Parisse capt.
Ireland: R Kearney; T Bowe, J Payne, R Henshaw, S Zebo; I Keatley (I Madigan 68), C Murray (I Boss 69); J McGrath (J Cronin 67), R Best (S Cronin 48), M Ross (M Moore 52), D Toner, P O'Connell capt, P O'Mahony, T O'Donnell (I Henderson 74), J Murphy.
Referee: Pascal Gauzere (France).