Ireland kick off Six Nations with drab Italy victory

Ireland kicked off the defence of their Six Nations Championship title with an uninspiring 3-26 victory over Italy at Stadio Olimpico in Rome on Saturday.

Ireland struggled through the first half as the Italian defence sapped up all of the Irish attacks but eventually in the final quarter Italy began to fade which allowed Ireland to move ahead.

Conor Murray and Tommy O’Donnell scored a try apiece and Ian Keatley kicked 14 points for the current Six Nations champions.

The result left the unanswered question of whether it was more of a case of Ireland surgeing as the match wore on or whether Italy had faded.

Ireland were without a number of their stars for the match in the Italian capital where two years ago they were beaten 22-15 by Italy.

But any worries coach Joe Schmidt had in his young side were dispelled just after the hour mark when Murray then O’Donnell, a late replacement for Sean O’Brien, touched down to put the match beyond the reach of the hosts.

Italy were denied a late try in the closing stages when captain Sergio Parisse knocked on just before fly-half Kelly Haimona went over the tryline.

The error capped what was a poor performance from the hosts, who finished last season with the tournament’s wooden spoon and went on to win only one match, against Samoa, in 2014.

Ireland are regarded as co-favourites for this year’s title along with England and underlined those expectations by cruising to a victory that means they have now won eight consecutive games for the first time in six years.

Schmidt had been forced to make several changes to the side that won last year’s title, with Brian O’Driscoll (retired), Andrew Trimble, Johnny Sexton, Jamie Heaslip, Cian Healy and Dave Kearney all missing from his squad.

But from the off the Irish never looked in trouble, with several up and coming players — Keatley, Murray and Jordi Murphy — all stepping up to the plate in what was far from a flowing game of rugby.

Munster fly-half Keatley, given the nod over Ian Madigan, gave Ireland a 9-3 half-time lead after kicking three penalties with Haimona scoring once for the hosts on the stroke of half-time.

But Ireland were a different team in the second half and in the final quarter Italy were a shadow of the side that played in the first half.

The visitors emerged in determined fashion and had Italy pinned back near the tryline for long spells and extended their lead just before the hour thanks to another Keatley penalty.

Ireland, however, seized the game by the scruff of the neck in the space of two second-half minutes after Leonardo Ghiraldini was sin-binned on 63 minutes for an infringement at the maul.

Murray bundled the ball just over the tryline while under pressure, with Keatley adding the conversion for a 19-3 lead that left Italy with a mountain to climb.

O’Donnell was only included in the starting XV at the last minute when O’Brien — who has not played a test in over a year — suffered an injury in the warm-up but made the most of his unanticipated appearance with a blistering run down the middle to touch down unchallenged on 66 minutes.

Madigan, who had replaced Keatley minutes earlier, fired over an easy conversion to rubber stamp the win.

Final Score Italy 3 (3) Ireland 26 (9)

Scorers

Italy
Tries :
Pen : Haimona
Con :
Drop :

Ireland
Tries : Murray, O’Donnell
Pen : Keatley (4)
Con : Keatley, Madigan
Drop :

Teams

Italy

Andrea Masi; Leonardo Sarto, Michele Campagnaro, Luca Morisi, Luke McLean; Kelly Haimona, Edoardo Gori; Francesco Minto, Sergio Parisse (cap), Alessandro Zanni; George Biagi, Josh Furno; Martin Castrogiovanni, Leonardo Ghiraldini, Matias Aguero

Replacements: Andrea Manici, Alberto De Marchi, Dario Chistolini, Marco Fuser, Robert Barbini, Guglielmo Palazzani, Tommaso Allan, Venditti

Ireland

Rob Kearney; Tommy Bowe, Jared Payne, Robbie Henshaw, Simon Zebo; Ian Keatley, Conor Murray; Jordi Murphy, Tommy O’Donnell Peter O’Mahony; Paul O’Connell (capt), Devin Toner; Mike Ross, Rory Best, Jack McGrath

Replacements: Sean Cronin, James Cronin, Martin Moore, Iain Henderson, Robbie Diack , Isaac Boss, Ian Madigan Felix Jones

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