Ireland have moved to the top of the RBS 6 Nations Championship table following a bruising, five-try victory over Italy at Stadio Flaminio on Sunday. Luke Fitzgerald opened his international try-scoring account with two, while Tommy Bowe, David Wallace and Brian O’Driscoll also touched down.
2009 RBS 6 NATIONS CHAMPIONSHIP: Sunday, February 15
ITALY 9 IRELAND 38, Stadio Flaminio
Scorers: Scorers: Italy: Pens: Luke McLean 3
Ireland: Tries: Tommy Bowe, Luke Fitzgerald 2, David Wallace, Brian O’Driscoll; Cons: Ronan O’Gara 4, Rob Kearney; Pen: Ronan O’Gara
Ireland made it two wins out of two in the RBS 6 Nations, overcoming a relatively poor first half performance to canter clear on the scoreboard in the second half.
Although Ireland’s error count and lack of cutting edge in the backs disappointed, Declan Kidney’s men did well to clinically finish off five try-scoring opportunities.
Two came from intercepted passes and another from a quickly-taken lineout, while Luke Fitzgerald’s opener, just before half-time, was scored after an incredible 19 phases of play.
Italy, as ever, held onto possession well, were stubborn in defence and in Australian-born out-half Luke McLean they have unearthed another quality place-kicker.
He kicked three penalty goals in the opening half and was just off target with his fourth attempt when Ireland looked in trouble at 9-7 and down to 14 players with McLean’s opposite number Ronan O’Gara in the sin-bin.
There was a fair amount of niggle in this game and it reared its head in the opening minute when Italian full-back Andrea Masi put in a high tackle on an advancing Rob Kearney.
Masi’s straight-arm challenge into Kearney’s neck could have caused serious damage but thankfully the Irish number 15 was unharmed and after a brief scuffle between opposing players, referee Chris White yellow-carded the offender.
Looking to bounce back from last weekend’s 36-11 defeat by England, Italy recovered quickly from the sin-binning and weathered the early attacks from Ireland.
They even went ahead on 5 minutes when McLean punished a ruck infringement from David Wallace.
Off the next few phases, Ireland made ground through Kearney, Paul O’Connell and Stephen Ferris but Italy’s defending was robust and Ireland got precious room to breathe.
Playing into a deceptive wind and with the often troublesome Mitre ball, O’Gara turned down two long range penalty attemps in favour of field position.
However, a series of handling errors and mistakes at rucks saw Ireland struggle to meet the high standards of last weekend’s win over France.
The Irish lost a key ball at an attacking lineout too, with Italian captain Sergio Parisse managing a good steal and a swift surge down the middle led to McLean’s second successful penalty, after an offside from Donncha O’Callaghan.
Italy were making the most of the possession coming their way and drawing kickable penalties between the Irish ten-metre line and the 22.
Nonetheless, Italy’s 6-0 lead was soon quashed when, in the 19th minute, Bowe took a chance and swooped onto a midfield pass which was aimed at Mirco Bergamasco.
The Ospreys winger intercepted it and rode the initial tackle. With 60 metres between him and the Italian try-line, he showed great pace and power to keep ahead of the retreating Bergamasco brothers and also fend off Kaine Robertson’s last-ditch tackle to score to the left of the posts.
O’Gara added the conversion to put Kidney’s side in front for the first time at 7-6. But Italy, helped by an Irish knock on, roared back into the visitors’ half and after a high tackle by O’Callaghan on Fabio Ongaro, McLean completed his penalty hat-trick.
Ireland were being pressurised at all times and struggled for good, front foot ball as the Italians got in to disrupt at crucial times.
Space was at a premium and the midfield was crowded with Mauro Bergamasco often joining his brother in the centre to defend from Irish lineouts.
There were two more sin-binnings before half-time, one for each team. After having his clearance kick charged down by Gonzalo Canale, O’Gara was carded for tackling the advancing Italian centre without the ball.
McLean missed the subsequent penalty and playing numbers were evened up on 36 minutes when prop Salvatore Perugini was sent to the line for foul play at a lineout.
Just before that, the unfortunate Paddy Wallace had to go off for treatment after sustaining another facial wound. Peter Stringer came on in his place and with O’Gara off the pitch, the versatile Tomas O’Leary slotted in at out-half.
Stringer’s punchy passes got Ireland’s forwards on the move once again and the visitors enjoyed their best spell of possession and territory in the minutes leading up to half-time.
Crucially, right on the stroke of half-time and after some sterling continuity work up front, Fitzgerald was freed up to dart over for his first international try.
With the Italian defence worn down after a full 19 phases, Ferris took a pass on from Stringer and managed to offload out of the tackle for the supporting Fitzgerald to cover the last ten metres to the line.
Kearney took over the place-kicking duties and landed the conversion to give Ireland a 14-9 lead to take into the second half.
O’Gara was back on right from the start of the second period, making it 15 versus 14 for a short while, and Ireland, with Paddy Wallace also patched up, made a sharp improvement in their overall play.
Passes were beginning to stick and the Italians, after a passion-filled first 35 minutes, were beginning to tire.
Brian O’Driscoll and Jamie Heaslip, who made a great burst forward before Matteo Pratichetti stopped him just short of the line, gained serious ground before flanker Wallace sniped over from close range for his 11th Test try.
O’Gara converted and Ireland succeeded in taking the fizz out of the game and quietening the home support over the first ten minutes of the second half, enjoying 75% possession.
O’Gara fired a penalty over to make it 24-9 in Ireland’s favour and with Italy not able to conjure up any real try-scoring opportunities, the margin looked comfortable if a little flattering.
Ireland looked capable of kicking on and getting more tries but there was a rather listless feel to the game over the closing 30 minutes, during which both coaches unloaded their benches and Italy had the lion’s share of possession but with most of it in their own half.
While the intensity dropped, there were still some notable moments for Ireland as Ulster prop Tom Court came on to make his Test debut and the long-serving Malcolm O’Kelly followed him to take his Irish caps record to 92.
Gordon D’Arcy, on for the injured Paddy Wallace, showed some spark and helped Ireland breathe some much-needed life back into the game in the closing ten minutes.
And with the possibility that this year’s Championship could be decided on points scoring difference, Ireland collected two late tries which could end up making all the difference in the final table next month.
Fitzgerald and D’Arcy showed their sharpness, exposing a sleepy Italian rearguard when they took a quick lineout on the left. Taking the return pass from D’Arcy, the young winger was able to scoot over for his second try of an attritional encounter.
O’Gara tagged on the extras and while Italy engineered a late attack, it fell flat on its face when Masi’s loose pass was picked off by O’Driscoll and the Ireland captain raced clear and in under the posts to complete an 80-metre intercept run.
O’Gara converted O’Driscoll’s try, which was his 19th in the Six Nations and 34th in Test rugby, to complete a scrappy but deserved win for the Irish.
Roll on England in two weeks’ time at Croke Park, where a much, more competent and cohesive performance will be needed for Ireland to stay on the winning trail.
TIME LINE: 1 minute – Italy yellow card: Andrea Masi (high tackle); 5 mins – Italy penalty: Luke McLean – 3-0; 16 mins – Italy penalty: Luke McLean – 6-0; 19 mins – Ireland try: Tommy Bowe – 6-5; conversion: Ronan O’Gara – 6-7; 24 mins – Italy penalty: Luke McLean – 9-7; 32 mins – Ireland yellow card: Ronan O’Gara (tackling the player without the ball); 32 mins – Italy penalty: missed by Luke McLean – 9-7; 36 mins – Italy yellow card: Salvatore Perugini (foul play); 40 mins – Ireland try: Luke Fitzgerald – 9-12; conversion: Rob Kearney – 9-14; Half-time – Italy 9 Ireland 14; 47 mins – Ireland try: David Wallace – 9-19; conversion: Ronan O’Gara – 9-21; 50 mins – Ireland penalty: Ronan O’Gara – 9-24; 76 mins – Ireland try: Luke Fitzgerald – 9-29; conversion: Ronan O’Gara – 9-31; 78 mins – Ireland try: Brian O’Driscoll – 9-36; conversion: Ronan O’Gara – 9-38; Full-time – Italy 9 Ireland 38
ITALY: Andrea Masi; Kaine Robertson, Gonzalo Canale, Mirco Bergamasco, Matteo Pratichetti; Luke McLean, Paul Griffen; Salvatore Perugini, Fabio Ongaro, Martin Castrogiovanni, Santiago Dellape, Tommaso Reato, Alessandro Zanni, Mauro Bergamasco, Sergio Parisse (capt).
Replacements used: Andrea Bacchetti for Robertson (20 mins), Carlos Nieta for Castrogiovanni (33), Carlo Festuccia for Ongaro (42), Gonzalo Garcia for Canale (47), Carlo Del Fava for Dellape, Josh Sole for Reato (both 48), Castrogiovanni for Perugini (58), Giulio Toniolatti for McLean (72).
IRELAND: Robert Kearney; Tommy Bowe, Brian O’Driscoll (capt), Paddy Wallace, Luke Fitzgerald; Ronan O’Gara, Tomas O’Leary; Marcus Horan, Jerry Flannery, John Hayes, Donncha O’Callaghan, Paul O’Connell, Stephen Ferris, David Wallace, Jamie Heaslip.
Replacements used: Peter Stringer for P Wallace (35-40 mins, blood sub), Gordon D’Arcy for P Wallace (42), Tom Court for Horan (55), Rory Best for Flannery (60), Denis Leamy for Ferris (63), Peter Stringer for O’Leary (72), Geordan Murphy for Kearney, Ferris for Heaslip (both 75), Malcolm O’Kelly for O’Connell (77).
Referee: Chris White (England)