Ireland got the better of Italy in a typically hard-fought clash with the Azzurri at Croke Park, as first half tries from Jamie Heaslip and Tomas O’Leary and a 16-point kicking haul from Ronan O’Gara helped the defending champions open the 2010 RBS 6 Nations on a winning note.
RBS 6 NATIONS CHAMPIONSHIP: Saturday, February 6
IRELAND 29 ITALY 11, Croke Park
Scorers: Ireland: Tries: Jamie Heaslip, Tomas O’Leary; Cons: Ronan O’Gara 2; Pens: Ronan O’Gara 4, Paddy Wallace
Italy: Try: Kaine Robertson; Pens: Craig Gower, Mirco Bergamasco
Ronan O’Gara returned to the Ireland team and played a key role in their opening win of this year’s RBS 6 Nations, kicking four penalties and two conversion for a 100% place-kicking return.
Number 8 Jamie Heaslip and scrum half Tomas O’Leary crossed for their fourth and first Test tries respectively to help establish a 23-8 interval lead for the defending champions.
But the durable Italians, who got over the line through Kaine Robertson, kept in the hunt during a stop-start second half which turned in a dour arm wrestle, with try-scoring chances few and far between.
As they readily admitted afterwards, Ireland will need to improve considerably to chase victory in Paris next weekend but winning ‘ugly’ was good enough for Brian O’Driscoll who was pleased with his side’s overall effort.
“I think it was a good workout. It’s not easy to click immediately having only been together for two weeks and not having played together since November,” he said, following Ireland’s eleventh win of a 12-match unbeaten run.
“There is plenty to improve on. It’s the first one and job done. We’ll take the positives out of it and move on.
“We showed an ability in the first half to turn defence into attack and the amount of lineout ball we won was a big plus.
“We made some good line breaks but didn’t finish them off. Maybe we need to improve our support play.”
Two years ago at Croke Park, the sides played out a similarly hard-fought encounter which ended in a five-point Irish win and although pleased to get their 2010 campaign off to a winning start, there was a definite sense of frustration amongst Declan Kidney’s men at the final whistle.
Frustration borne out of a failure to really put Italy away and lay down a marker for the rest of the Championship, playing as they know they can play.
But, as O’Driscoll said afterwards, this game ‘will stand to’ Ireland next week and there is plenty of room for improvement in Paris and beyond.
As well as a senior bow for flanker Kevin McLaughlin, there were RBS 6 Nations debuts for prop Cian Healy and replacements Donnacha Ryan, Keith Earls and Sean O’Brien.
In addition, there were two notable achievements for two players who have worked their socks off for Ireland since their debuts against Scotland in 2000.
Standing on 499 points before kick-off, out-half O’Gara’s first penalty success this afternoon saw him become the first player to go through the 500-point barrier in RBS 6 Nations rugby.
Meanwhile, O’Gara’s Munster colleague, long-serving prop John Hayes, had a milestone of his own to celebrate. The game marked Hayes’ 50th Championship outing and his 100th Test appearance – if you add his two Lions caps to his 98 for Ireland.
O’Gara opened the scoring in the 10th minute when he slotted a penalty after Italian powerhouse Martin Castrogiovanni had collapsed a scrum under pressure from Healy.
The Azzurri, who botched an early try-scoring chance, were expected to control the scrum but instead Ireland were asking all the questions in the set piece, while their open play was vastly superior too.
Scenting their first try on the quarter-hour mark, they struck with clinical efficiency to send Heaslip over.
Winger Andrew Trimble, back in the starting line-up, made the initial break with the support work of Paul O’Connell and Rob Kearney keeping the move going until slick hands, with O’Gara and O’Driscoll to the fore, sent Heaslip in at the right corner.
The conversion by O’Gara established a 10-0 lead that would have been extended had O’Driscoll’s chip not slipped into touch following a brilliant piece of improvisation from Ireland’s talisman, who was captaining his country for the 60th time (42 wins).
Former rugby league player Craig Gower landed a long range penalty that he drew over from right to left, but Italy’s off-colour display continued, enabling O’Gara to pick off another three points.
Compounding Italy’s mounting problems was a yellow card for centre Gonzalo Garcia, brandished by referee Romain Poite for an apparent spear tackle on O’Driscoll.
Ireland took advantage of the extra man with Kearney’s running causing problems until a disastrous lineout, five metres from the Italian whitewash, saw hooker and captain Leonardo Ghiraldini throw the ball straight to recalled Irish lock Leo Cullen.
Italy were in disarray and although Castrogiovanni prevented Cullen from scoring, the ball was relayed and O’Leary took advantage of the space to dart over from the close range ruck, with O’Gara converting.
But Kearney took too long to get a clearance kick away, off the restart, and he was charged down by pacy winger Robertson who followed up on the bouncing ball to score in the right corner.
Winger Mirco Bergamasco had taken over the kicking duties and though he missed the conversion, he landed a penalty five minutes after the interval.
But Italy’s problems continued at scrum time with Castrogiovanni once again conceding to the impressive Healy, allowing O’Gara to continue his flawless run with the boot.
Italy were at their attritional best in the third quarter but the men in green, playing well within themselves, also contributed to the lull in proceedings with some poor kicking, Kearney and O’Gara the main culprits.
O’Gara (knee) and O’Connell (eye) shipped knocks as a disappointing second half wore on, and the Irish management emptied the bench in the end – Paddy Wallace coming on for a run-out at out-half, Rory Best replacing fit-again hooker Jerry Flannery, who was playing only his third provincial or international game of the season, and youngsters O’Brien and Ryan enjoying their first taste of RBS 6 Nations rugby.
Flanker David Wallace was also called ashore after a typically committed and energetic display in defence and attack that earned him the RBS man-of-the-match award.
Paddy Wallace took over the kicking duties and obliged with a penalty before Gordon D’Arcy made a scintillating break that was bettered by Mirco Bergamasco during the last play of the match.
The Irish defensive line held out though, and the vast majority of the 77,686-strong crowd went home happy, with the first rung of the Championship cleared and attentions turning to Paris.
TIME LINE: 10 minutes – Ireland penalty: Ronan O’Gara – 3-0; 15 mins – Ireland try: Jamie Heaslip – 8-0; conversion: Ronan O’Gara – 10-0; 27 mins – Italy penalty: Craig Gower – 10-3; 28 mins – Ireland penalty: Ronan O’Gara – 13-3; 33 mins – Italy yellow card: Gonzalo Garcia (dangerous tackle); 34 mins – Ireland penalty: Ronan O’Gara – 16-3; 36 mins – Ireland try: Tomas O’Leary – 21-3; conversion: Ronan O’Gara – 23-3; 39 mins – Italy try: Kaine Robertson – 23-8; conversion: missed by Mirco Bergamasco – 23-8; Half-time – Ireland 23 Italy 8; 45 mins – Italy penalty: Mirco Bergamasco – 23-11; 47 mins – Ireland penalty: Ronan O’Gara – 26-11; 68 mins – Ireland penalty: Paddy Wallace – 29-11; Full-time – Ireland 29 Italy 11
IRELAND: Rob Kearney; Tommy Bowe, Brian O’Driscoll (capt), Gordon D’Arcy, Andrew Trimble; Ronan O’Gara, Tomas O’Leary; Cian Healy, Jerry Flannery, John Hayes, Leo Cullen, Paul O’Connell, Kevin McLaughlin, David Wallace, Jamie Heaslip.
Replacements used: Keith Earls for Trimble, Rory Best for Flannery (both 56 mins), Donnacha Ryan for O’Connell (61), Paddy Wallace for O’Gara (66), Tom Court for Hayes, Sean O’Brien for D Wallace (both 73), Eoin Reddan for O’Leary (74).
ITALY: Luke McLean; Kaine Robertson, Gonzalo Canale, Gonzalo Garcia, Mirco Bergamasco; Craig Gower, Tito Tebaldi; Salvatore Perugini, Leonardo Ghiraldini (capt), Martin Castrogiovanni, Carlo Del Fava, Quintin Geldenhuys, Josh Sole, Mauro Bergamasco, Alessandro Zanni.
Replacements used: Marco Bortolami for Del Fava (49 mins), Matias Aguero for Castrogiovanni (56), Andrea Masi for Robertson (58), Riccardo Bocchino for Gower (66-74, blood sub), Simon Picone for Tebaldi (66), Fabio Ongaro for Ghiraldini, Castrogiovanni for Perugini (both 73). Not used: Paul Derbyshire.
Referee: Romain Poite (France)