Ireland got their first RBS 6 Nations points on the board after growing into the game to beat Italy 42-10 at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday.
Tommy Bowe scored tries either side of half-time to go with efforts from Keith Earls, Tom Court and Andrew Trimble. However, Declan Kidney's men needed time to find their feet and a try from captain Sergio Parisse had helped Italy get level early in the game.
Still, after the late loss to Wales and the no-show in Paris a fortnight ago, a Jonathan Sexton-inspired Ireland are now happy to be off the mark.
Italy were given a very early chance to split the Irish posts, but kicker Tobias Botes signalled the inconsistency that would be seen in his game throughout as he fired left of the target.
An Ireland side that was slow to get going gave him another chance after holding on at the ruck and this time his effort sneaked just inside the post, although he must have been worried before it swerved back in.
Sexton soon had the sides level. Ireland’s fly-half looked like he might need to be temporarily replaced after taking a whack to his head and drawing blood. However, Ronan O’Gara had to throw the tracksuit top back on as Sexton was fixed up and sent over his side’s first points of the day with a penalty.
That failed to spark too much excitement in the sell-out crowd, but the home faithful were brought to their feet a quarter of an hour in. The try came after Sexton found the corner with a penalty. Captain Paul O’Connell dominated at the line-out, feeding Cian Healy who drove forward.
As the move continued, Jamie Heaslip was foiled by Alessandro Zanni, but the wide ball to Sexton ensured that Ireland had enough men forward. The kicker was denied just ahead of the line but Earls took up possession to power past Botes and ground it, with Sexton adding the extras.
Ireland, however, failed to build on that score in a half which saw Italy repeatedly peg them back, while a head blow for Healy also looked to unsettle the men in green. Italy came close to punishing their somewhat meandering showing, but a penalty from Botes that came back off the post was cleared, not without panic, by the hosts.
Shortly after, Sexton had to deny Alberto Sgarbi a certain try when he was given the freedom of the right wing as Ireland’s game proved all too sloppy.
But again Ireland failed to learn their lesson. Italy took advantage of an Irish line-out that went over the top. Robert Barbieri claimed and went at the home defence, before being held up just short of the line. Botes recovered the ball though and played in Parisse to make his way over beneath the posts. Botes could not miss the conversion from there and Jacques Brunel’s side were level.
They would have been more than worth going in at half-time on terms, but that status was robbed from them in the final move of the half. Another Ireland line-out this time worked better, with the follow-up phases seeing Gordon D’Arcy, Rob Kearney and Stephen Ferris all take hold of the ball, before the latter sent Bowe free down the right and there was no stopping him. Sexton made it 17-10 on the stroke.
The home fans wanted more and Ireland started the second half in more ambitious fashion. Only a last-ditch Andrea Masi prevented Bowe from getting in for a second try, but a subsequent collapsed Italian scrum did gave Sexton the opportunity to coolly slot over for 20-10.
Eoin Reddan replaced Conor Murray in the scrum-half position, while Peter O’Mahony came on for Sean O’Brien for his debut on the flank. The changes aided Ireland’s upsurge, an offence from Barbieri allowing Sexton to continue his perfect kicking.
And within minutes Ireland had their third try. A break down the right saw Donncha Ryan leave a number of opponents for dead. The ruck that followed saw Ireland stay right, with Sexton superbly passing ten metres to Bowe and he eased over for another converted try.
That was game over, but in the final five minutes – after grasping complete dominance of the game – Ireland added two further tries. The first came after Heaslip got close to the line, Ryan setting a ruck before Court took command and just about made it over from a yard.
Sexton coverted that one, but his perfect record ended with the last kick of the game when he went just left from wide out on the left.
A try of course was needed for him to have that conversion chance. It was registered when Ireland turned Italy over and the ball found its way to Trimble, who had acres of space in front of him. The try was no trouble for him and that was that.