Upward arc likely to yield triumph in France
Schmidt's men close in on title
This was a script with just two pages on it. Page one was about beating Italy with enough to spare as to make points difference a very tall order for those chasing Ireland to the Championship finish line next weekend. That figure now stands at 81, and if England (plus 21) or Wales (plus 6) somehow manage to overhaul that figure then it will have been a unique occurrence.
Of course we don't know what Ireland's figures will be by early evening in Paris on Saturday but you suspect that a win will be enough.
The second page of the script related to Brian O'Driscoll's send-off, on home soil, on the day he became the world's most capped player, with 140 appearances, and the most capped player in the history of the Six Nations, with 64. The plan was for him to be fit and well by the time he was being called ashore.
Having been winded and needing attention in the second half it looked like we'd have to deviate, but he recovered and just after the hour his number was called. The standing ovation was enormous and the crowd were reluctant to sit down.
So the main boxes were ticked in good order. The main injury worry seems to be Cian Healy, whose right foot was encased in a moon boot after the game. This was described as "a precaution – not considered serious" – by an IRFU spokesman. A precaution against further damage we presume, though no mention was made of the original damage at the post match press conference. Conor Murray also went off with what Joe Schmidt later described as "a bit of a ding", having been unwell on the Friday night. The silver lining on that cloud was the performance of his replacement Eoin Reddan, who had a fine game.
As it happens, so did O'Driscoll. The 13 picked up the man-of-the-match award, and while the occasion was perhaps a factor, so too, thankfully, was his performance. In time he will consider it a bonus that his last Test at Lansdowne Road was one where he played so well.
And he needed to. Spare a thought for the Italians here: they conceded seven tries and didn't play badly; while Ireland, despite to 7-1 try count, didn't play that well – or at least not as well as Schmidt wanted. Given the direction of the traffic – Italy had made 208 tackles, almost three times Ireland's count – it was inevitable that they would be gasping for air in the final quarter. In that last 20 minutes alone they conceded four tries.
Yet their defensive shape for much of the game was excellent, and at times they made Ireland struggle to maintain their attacking structure as the home team piled phase upon phase. Certainly for the opening hour it was a very positive game of rugby, and if you have two teams wanting to play then there is no better referee that Nigel Owens.
On bad days you can see him mentally leave the building, but he was in his element here. Amazingly, at the end of 40 minutes the penalty count stood at 2-1 in Ireland's favour, evidence of how little impact the referee was having. Not surprisingly Italy ended up conceding 10, as they ran out of gas, with Ireland only being pinged twice – a phenomenal return in a Test match.
We didn't have a 'ball in play' stat to go with that but if we had you suspect it would have been in record territory. It was lung-bursting stuff, and you were all the time waiting for the Italians to crack. They were up against a side with both territory and possession stats in the mid 70 per cent slot, yet the away team kept their composure.
At the same time Ireland were looking a bit frustrated. When you're 7-0 up after as many minutes, on a perfect day and with so much to play for, not unreasonably you reckon the opposition might lose heart early enough. They didn't.
The seven points came – typically for this team – from a set-piece move, with very good scrum ball allowing Johnny Sexton wrap O'Driscoll and get over for a fine try. But it stalled there. Ireland's set-piece was excellent, pressuring Italy at scrum and lineout, and the driving maul is approaching art-form at this stage.
Referee Owens was a bit lenient to the Italians in their defence of it.
In Devin Toner especially Ireland had a very willing carrier, but for all the approach work they were struggling to get an opening. Then on 25 minutes Italy's attacking shape, with a pod of forwards out in the tramlines, caught Ireland cold when the ball went loose after a big tackle from Andrew Trimble. Leonardo Sarto finished well, and Luciano Orquera's conversion squared the game.
That went some way to killing the mood for a crowd who had come to party. Sexton put Ireland back in front with a handy penalty after a good snipe by Reddan who spotted his opposite number, Tito Tebaldi, open the door on the blind side of a scrum.
A Trimble try just before the break virtually sealed the contest. It was Reddan who tapped and went from a penalty in his own 22, and beautiful step and pass by O'Driscoll at the end of a sweeping move put the winger over.
So 17-7 at the break looked a big enough deficit for Italy and a minor scuffle, which saw Tebaldi penalised for trying to choke Paul O'Connell, suggested the away team were tiring of all this positivity. A few minutes later Cian Healy put the score out to 22-7, and thereafter Ireland were all about shining up their points tally and paving the exit route for O'Driscoll.
Sexton got perhaps the score of the day, and his second, on the hour, and replacements Sean Cronin, Fergus McFadden and Jack McGrath reinforced that Ireland have a bench that can make a difference.
Ireland: R Kearney; A Trimble, B O'Driscoll (F McFadden 62), G D'Arcy, D Kearney; J Sexton (P Jackson 64), C Murray (E Reddan 16); C Healy (J McGrath 54), R Best (S Cronin 54), M Ross (M Moore 57), D Toner, P O'Connell, I Henderson (R Ruddock 54), J Heaslip, C Henry (J Murphy 74)
Italy: L McLean; A Esposito, M Campagnaro, G Garcia, L Sarto; L Orquera (T Allan 65), T Tebaldi (E Gori 71); A De Marchi (M Rizz0 57; A De Marchi 71)), L Ghiraldini (D Giazzon 71), M Castrogiovanni (L Cittadini 7), Q Geldenhuys, M Bortolami (capt) ( A Pananello 64), J Furno, R Barbieri, P Derbyshire (R Vosawai 57)
Referee: N Owens (Wales)
Sunday Indo Sport