Half-backs Ronan O’Gara and Eoin Reddan both had vital roles as Ireland kicked off their 2008 Six Nations campaign with a slender win over Italy at Croke Park.
2008 RBS SIX NATIONS: Saturday, February 2
IRELAND 16 ITALY 11, Croke Park (Att: 75,387)
Scorers: Ireland: Try: Girvan Dempsey; Con: Ronan O’Gara; Pens: Ronan O’Gara 3
Italy: Try: Martin Castrogiovanni; Pens: David Bortolussi 2
After World Cup defeats to France and Argentina, Eddie O’Sullivan’s side got back to winning ways but failed to capitalise on a number of try-scoring chances and were left defending a five-point lead by the finish.
Had Ireland been more clinical in the first half, the margin of victory would no doubt been more comfortable.
Yet the Italians stuck doggedly to their task and given the quality of players in the visiting side, this was still a win of note and one which will boost Irish morale ahead of next weekend’s trip to Paris.
Ireland laid the groundwork for their 12th straight success against the Azzurri in the first quarter when they went 10-0 up.
The early stages were not all positive as Gordon D’Arcy had to helped off after fracturing his arm when try to tackle new Italian out-half Andrea Masi.
The Irish management’s worst fears were confirmed afterwards and the Leinster centre will miss the rest of the tournament.
After a 12th-minute penalty from the influential O’Gara, Ireland sought out their first try.
Geordan Murphy sped up into the line and after a pinpoint kick to the far right touchline from O’Gara, whose first two cross-field launches were off target, Andrew Trimble did very well to gather the ball on the bounce, tie in two defenders and offload for the supporting Girvan Dempsey to race on and dive over in front of Hill 16.
But Ireland sruggled to finish off some pre-planned moves and save for the performances of the fast-breaking Reddan, O’Gara, David Wallace, who had some notable carries, and an in-form Donncha O’Callaghan, this was a sluggish start to the championship from the men in green.
Brian O’Driscoll was busy throughout, using his right boot intelligently, however the Italian’s scramble defence cut off the Irish captain time and again when he threatened to undo their midfield.
A well-weighted O’Driscoll kick almost had Trimble in for a try, while before Dempsey’s effort, the Irish full-back was let down by a poor pass from Murphy as the home side probed the left wing.
On the whole, Italy had the better of the second quarter during which they lost lock Santiago Dellape to the sin-bin for punching but got themselves on the scoreboards thanks to a David Bortolussi penalty.
The introduction of Ezio Galon into their side livened up their back-line and despite a solid scrum, too many errors crept into the Irish game, particularly at the lineout where Rory Best and his jumpers struggled initially.
On the 20-minute mark, when Ireland shunned a penalty in favour of a close-in lineout, Best could not find his intended target and the chance was lost.
Italy upped the ante after that, breaking into the Irish 22 and handing Bortolussi his first shot at the posts which he gladly took.
On the restart, Ireland looked to reassert themselves and both Reddan and Trimble made sniping runs that had the Italian defence stretched. Unfortunately, Italy were quick both times to swarm back and squeeze the life out of the attack.
Having been warned about his conduct at the breakdown previously, Ireland flanker Simon Easterby earned a yellow card for hands in the ruck in the 49th-minute and the home side’s early spark faded.
Bortolussi missed a kickable penalty before referee Jonathan Kaplan spotted an offside in front of the Italian posts, four minutes later, and O’Gara mopped up with his second successful penalty for 13-3.
Nonetheless, Italy fought their way back right in the 61st-minute when they kicked a clonse range penalty to touch, won their lineout through captain Sergio Parisse and a powerful maul effort saw them shunt prop Martin Castrogiovanni over the Irish whitewash, with television match official Tim Hayes confirming the score.
Bortolussi missed the conversion from the right and the full-back’s missed kicks were to prove crucial as they would have made up the difference between the sides at full-time.
O’Sullivan reacted by sending Bernard Jackman and Jamie Heaslip into the fray – they joined D’Arcy’s replacement Rob Kearney in making their Six Nations debuts.
While there was a moment to cherish for Newbridge College in the closing stages when Munster prop Tony Buckley, also a newcomer to the tournament, was introduced, meaning there was four past pupils of the Kildare school on the field – Geordan Murphy, Jackman, Heaslip and Buckley.
By that time, O’Gara had handed Ireland a double scores lead (16-8) before Bortolussi snapped it back to a five-point game and set up a nervy finish for Irish players and fans alike.
O’Gara missed a 76th-minute penalty kick, shooting it away to the right of the posts, as Ireland attempted to end the gritty visitors’ fight.
But Nick Mallett’s men kept plugging away right until the final whistle, chasing their country’s first win over Ireland since 1997. It never came and tellingly, the most popular phrase uttered by the Irish players afterwards was ‘a win is a win.’
TIME LINE: 12 minutes – Ireland penalty: Ronan O’Gara – 3-0; 18 mins – Ireland try: Girvan Dempsey – 8-0; conversion: Ronan O’Gara – 10-0; 30 mins – Italy yellow card: Santiago Dellape (punching); 38 mins – Italy penalty: David Bortolussi – 10-3; Half-time – Ireland 10 Italy 3; 49 mins – Ireland yellow card: Simon Easterby (killing the ball at a ruck); 53 mins – Italy penalty kick: missed by David Bortolussi – 10-3; 57 mins – Ireland penalty: Ronan O’Gara – 13-3; 61 mins – Italy try: Martin Castrogiovanni – 13-8; conversion: missed by David Bortolussi – 13-8 ; 66 mins – Ireland penalty: Ronan O’Gara – 16-8; 70 mins – Italy penalty: David Bortolussi – 16-11; 76 mins – Ireland penalty: missed by Ronan O’Gara – 16-11; Full-time – Ireland 16 Italy 11
IRELAND: Girvan Dempsey; Andrew Trimble, Brian O’Driscoll (capt), Gordon D’Arcy, Geordan Murphy; Ronan O’Gara, Eoin Reddan; Marcus Horan, Rory Best, John Hayes, Donncha O’Callaghan, Malcolm O’Kelly, Simon Easterby, David Wallace, Denis Leamy.
Replacements used: Robert Kearney for D’Arcy (26 mins), Jamie Heaslip for Easterby (60), Bernard Jackman for Best (62), Mick O’Driscoll for O’Kelly (67), Tony Buckley for Hayes, Peter Stringer for Reddan (both 74). Not used: Paddy Wallace.
ITALY: David Bortolussi; Kaine Robertson, Gonzalo Canale, Mirco Bergamasco, Pablo Canavosio; Andrea Masi, Pietro Travagli; Andrea Lo Cicero, Leonardo Ghiraldini, Martin Castrogiovanni, Santiago Dellape, Carlo Del Fava, Josh Sole, Mauro Bergamasco, Sergio Parisse (capt).
Replacements used: Ezio Galon for Canavosio (24 mins), Alessandro Zanni for Sole (half-time), Carlo Festuccia for Ghiraldini, Salvatore Perugini for Lo Cicero (both 56), Andrea Marcato for Bortolussi (72), Tommaso Reato for Del Fava (74), Lorenzo Cittadini for Castrogiovanni (80).
Referee: Jonathan Kaplan (South Africa)