Andrew Trimble, Neil Best and Johnny O'Connor each scored their first Test tries as Ireland ended their autumn International losing streak with a 43-12 defeat of Romania on Saturday.
permanent tsb International: Saturday, November 26
IRELAND 43 ROMANIA 12, Lansdowne Road (Att: 25,000)
Trimble confirmed his arrival on the international stage as he bagged two tries - one in each half - in only his second appearance for Eddie O'Sullivan's side. The 21-year-old's performance was the undoubted highlight for Irish fans who braved the winter chill of a November noon kick-off.
The team performance may have been lacking in consistency but Trimble's brace, the efforts from Best and O'Connor and late scores from experienced duo Geordan Murphy and Girvan Dempsey, Murphy's full-back replacement in the closing stages, put a positive finish on what was, at times, a struggle against a rugged Romanian side.
Adding to the plus points, Ireland's player base for the forthcoming Six Nations championship was also broadened as Munster hooker Jerry Flannery made his debut in the second half and his provincial team mate Mick O'Driscoll came on for his first cap since 2002. Ulster scrum-half Kieran Campbell and try-scoring flanker Best were also making their first starts in an Irish shirt.
With 11 players on the injury list, including talismanic skipper Brian O'Driscoll (shoulder) and lynchpin lock Paul O'Connell (hand), this victory - the first of the season and 34th of O'Sullivan's 49-Test reign - was still one of merit, especially given the performance of the visitors' pack.
The Oaks' forwards - six of them regulars with clubs in the French Top 14 league - proved sticky customers and their rumblings had Welsh television match official Derek Bevan reviewing footage three times in the second half as they foraged in vain for their maiden try. In the end, the world's 15th-ranked side could only count on four well-struck penalties from the boot of scrum half Petre Mitu.
His opposite number David Humphreys, captaining his country for the fifth time, was also on the meat with his kicking. The Ulster number 10 bagged 13 points - slotting five conversions and a penalty - to take his record points tally up to 560.
Coming off the back of last weekend's 30-14 defeat by Australia, O'Sullivan made five changes to his side - pairing Ulster duo Humphreys and Campbell at half-back, and bringing two Bests, unrelated prop Simon and flanker Neil, as well as Leicester lock Leo Cullen - starting his first Test at Lansdowne Road for three years - into the pack.
Fittingly, Ireland, with six Ulster players included from the kick-off, wore black armbands in remembrance of former Manchester United and Northern Ireland soccer star George Best, who sadly passed away on Friday.
A lacklustre opening from the Irish though saw Romania - helped by a barracking breeze - go 6-3 in front with 11 minutes on the clock.
A high-noon hiding for the dogged Oaks was looking hard work as Mitu slotted kicks on 8 and 11 minutes to cancel out Humphreys' fifth-minute penalty success. The visitors' pack was bossing the issue but once Ireland cut out the turnovers, the scores came.
Their first decent opportunity from a nineteenth-minute lineout inside the Romanian 22 was robbed away by number eight Ovidiu Tonita. But four minutes later, Campbell, with his right boot missing, sent Murphy sniping through the visitors' defence and Trimble popped up on his right shoulder to take the pass and dot down behind the posts.
Humphreys converted and an upping of the tempo from Ireland, combined with a yellow card for Alexandru Manta for repeatedly being offside at rucks, saw them roll up to half-time with a 17-6 lead thanks to Best's try.
Five minutes before the break, Best, from a Humphreys' offload, skated inside prop Petru Balan and through the weak tackle of Gabriel Brezoianu to score by the posts.
Humphreys converted, but the Ulster veteran almost handed Romania an outlet back into the game, three minutes into the second half. He was badly charged down by Ionut Tofan, but Ireland regrouped well inside their own 22 and from a subsequent Humphreys' garryowen, they garnered their third try.
Full-back Catalin Fercu knocked on as he attempted to gathered the kick, Trimble waded in to claim possession and neat hands from Gordon D'Arcy, Cullen and Tommy Bowe saw possession come back to centre Trimble who gleefully charged over for his second try.
Humphreys' conversion for 24-6 was cancelled out as Mitu landed two penalties into the wind - the first on 48 minutes being particularly impressive from 45 metres out.
Those kicks kept Romania interested and their pack, with Balan, Tonita and sin-binned flanker Manta carrying the fight, were unfortunate not to gain a try when camped three times on the Irish line. The lightning quick Fercu, at just 19, was also agonisingly close to crossing the whitewash - he was denied by a last-gasp tackle from Humphreys in the left corner.
O'Sullivan's men then turned around what was a patchy performance with three tries in the closing 22 minutes. First Wasps flanker O'Connor escaped the right wing challenge of Tonita to ghost in for his first try on 58 minutes, adding a well-executed front roll in his celebration.
Then Murphy out-muscled substitute Xabi Gal to score his 16th try in 34 Test appearances and Dempsey, barely on the pitch, grabbed the 14th of his 62-cap career on 73 minutes to round out the win.
A good, confidence-building outing for the squad, but still much work to do before the Six Nations campaign begins against Italy in Dublin on February 4 next.
IRELAND: Geordan Murphy; Shane Horgan, Andrew Trimble, Gordon D'Arcy, Tommy Bowe; David Humphreys (capt), Kieran Campbell; Marcus Horan, Shane Byrne, Simon Best, Donncha O'Callaghan, Leo Cullen, Neil Best, Johnny O'Connor, Denis Leamy.
Replacements used: Mick O'Driscoll for O'Callaghan, Jerry Flannery for Byrne (both 69 mins), Peter Stringer for Campbell, Ronan O'Gara for Humphreys, Girvan Dempsey for Murphy (all 70), John Hayes for Horan (80). Not used: Simon Easterby.
ROMANIA: Catalin Fercu; Gabriel Brezoianu, Ionut Tofan, Valentin Maftei, Ioan Teodorescu; Ionut Dimofte, Petre Mitu; Petru Balan, Marius Tincu, Pepe Toderasc, Sorin Socol (capt), Cristian Petre, Florin Corodeanu, Alexandru Manta, Ovidiu Tonita.
Replacements used: Xabi Gal for Maftei (45 mins), Dan Vlad for Dimofte (56), Costica Mersoiu for Corodeanu (60), Marcello Socaciu for Toderasc (65), Cosmin Ratiu for Manta (70). Not used: Cezar Popescu, Lucien Sirbu.
HT: Ireland 17 Romania 6; Sin-Bin: Manta (Romania) (34 mins); Man-of-the-match: Trimble (Ireland)
Referee: Andrew Cole (Australia)