Despite a lackluster performance in Rome, Ireland took a step closer to achieving their Grand Slam goal as they fought off a resilient Italy to earn a bonus-point victory.
Before the break, James Ryan, Hugo Keenan, Bundee Aki, and Mack Hansen each scored a try for the Irish.
Yet deserving goals from Stephen Varney and Pierre Bruno kept the home team in the game at the half.
Hansen ensured an Irish victory after enduring Italian pressure.
In relief of Johnny Sexton at fly-half, Ross Byrne scored nine points, including a crucial penalty in the 65th minute that gave Ireland a seven-point lead.
While Ireland will ultimately enjoy earning a third consecutive bonus point victory, a resurgent Italy seriously tested Andy Farrell’s team in a game that was very different from Ireland’s rout of them in Dublin last year.
The fact that Italy’s players put the world’s best team under a lot of pressure and made Farrell uncomfortable for the whole of the afternoon will encourage head coach Kieran Crowley.
The Englishman will be happy that Ireland persevered to produce another result in front of a 51,034-person crowd in the Italian city and move two victories away from a Grand Slam, with Scotland the next opponent at Murrayfield on March 12.
Playback Ireland’s bonus-point victory over tenacious Italy.
Ireland experiences discomfort because of Italy
Ireland entered this Test as clear favorites to win the tournament this year after their dominance in international rugby and their history against Italy.
Five minutes in, they appeared to be on their way to another decisive victory over a team they typically defeat with ease, but Ireland’s performance was anything but simple as Italy produced enough problems to give Farrell plenty to think about.
Ryan was there to get Ireland moving in the third minute after a great Aki offload found James Lowe, who had his effort in the second minute disallowed because a TMO review determined he had lost control of the ball before grounding.
At that moment, Italy could have crumbled in earlier times, but they rallied back in a remarkable way, with Varney scoring after Lorenzo Cannone raced through the Irish defense.
Pierre Bruno (left) celebrates his try just before halftime Pierre Bruno (left) pounced on an attempted Bundee Aki and scored a breakaway try to keep Italy in the game at halftime Ireland were given a reprieve when Andrew Porter forced a turnover after another Cannone charge into the opposition’s 22 before Keenan collected an Aki pass, deftly dodging a few blue shirts, and scored a second Irish try.
As Josh van der Flier and Lowe worked together to throw Aki over in the corner at the 20-minute mark, Ireland increased its lead to nine points. Italy responded with a penalty shot from returning fly-half Paolo Garbisi.
With five minutes remaining in the first half, Ireland snatched the bonus-point score when Stuart McCloskey set up Hansen in the corner. However, Italy was given new life when Bruno read Aki’s attempted pass and raced in to score from 65 meters away to leave Kieran Crowley’s seven goals behind at the break.
Italian hopes for a major upset are dashed by Hansen’s score.
Italy, who have been praised this year despite losses to France and England in their first two matches, were obviously inspired by their part in an exciting first half and continued to put Ireland under pressure after the break.
With Ireland under severe pressure 12 minutes from time, Juan Ignacio Brex let the visitors off the hook by deciding to go for the corner and watching in agony as the ball went dead. Nonetheless, they only had a Garbisi penalty to show for their efforts.
When Aki had earlier had a second try disallowed for a knock-on, superb work by Caelan Doris and the substitute scrum-half Conor Murray allowed Hansen to smash over beneath the posts and eventually put Ireland out of the grasp of the Italians.
While Ireland were far from their free-flowing best in the latter phases, Farrell’s team finally passed another brutal evaluation of their credentials and will head to Edinburgh in a fortnight with a fourth Grand Slam still in reach.
Possibly a wake-up call
Chris Henry, a former back row player for Ireland, said on BBC Radio Ulster Sportsound: “There is a lot of work to be done, if you’re a member of the Irish coaching staff.
“It may be beneficial. Perhaps it’s a wake-up call, and they’ll need to address a few crucial problems before the next two games.
“Italy deserves a lot of praise for their excellent defensive performance. Now, Italy was the source of all physicality and dominance. The final score does not accurately represent how well Italy did.”
Italy’s lineup consists of Capuozzo, Padovani, Brex, Menoncello, Bruno, Garbisi, Varney, Ferrari, Cannone, Ruzza, Negri, Lamaro (captain), Cannone, Nicotera, and Padovani.
Bigi, Zani, Riccioni, Iachizzi, Pettinelli, Fusco, Morisi, and Allan are the replacements.
Keenan, Hansen, Aki, McCloskey, Lowe, R Byrne, Casey, Porter, Kelleher, Bealham, Ryan Henderson (captain), Doris, Van der Flier, and Conan are the Irish players.
D. Sheehan, Kilcoyne, O’Toole, Baird, O’Mahony, Murray, Crowley, and O’Brien are the replacements.