By Mark Jones
Ireland 41, Italy 22
DUBLIN — Ireland’s first-ever Six Nations rugby match in Italy ended in a predictable, if unimpressive, 41-22 victory for the Irish last Saturday, but this was no Roman holiday for coach Warren Gatland and his players. Even if the Italians ran out of steam, as well as discipline, in the closing stages of a physical game, the favorites took far too long to secure an opening championship win of the season.
For the best part of an hour, Italy were more than just in contention, and if their injured playmaker, Diego Dominguez, had been available, the result could well have been different. The home team exhibited plenty of desire, but without the skills of Dominguez, they lacked direction and Ireland were able to pile on the points during an improved second-half performance.
David Wallace, on his Six Nations debut, stole the show with an outstanding individual display, while three tries for Rob Henderson and 21 points from Ronan O’Gara were also important contributions. However, it was Italy who made the headlines for all the wrong reasons toward the end of the game.
Realizing that their chance of repeating last season’s surprising success in the Stadio Flaminio in Rome had gone, a blue mist descended on the Italian players. First, scrum-half Peter Stringer was flattened off the ball by Mauro Bergamasco, then Tyrone Howe was blatantly and dangerously late-tackled by Cristian Stoica, and the last straw came when Alessandro Troncon poleaxed the diminutive Stringer with a punch Primo Carnera would have been proud of.
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For some reason best known to himself, South African referee Jonathan Kaplan chose not to take any remedial action following the initial two incidents, but when Troncon unleashed his right hook, Kaplan at last put a stop to the mayhem and sent the Italian scrum-half off.
Coach Gatland admitted later that the first half, during which the Irish conceded two tries by Corrado Pilat and Carlo Checchinato, had reminded him of the disastrous World Cup loss to Argentina in 1999.
"In the end, we would have been more than happy with a 1-point win, but it was a fairly convincing second-half performance," Gatland said. "We made far too many mistakes before the interval and we just couldn’t get our game going."
As for captain Keith Wood, who was nowhere near his best form, he admitted he was "pretty bloody happy" about the win.
"I think we were very nervous beforehand," he said. "It was one of those games where expectation seemed to befuddle the mind."
With as many as 12,000 Irish supporters in Rome, Wood was certainly right about expectation levels. As the fans tasted the delights — ancient and modern — of the Italian capital, no one for a second was countenancing anything other than a win for Wood and his players. That pressure seeped through onto the Stadio Flaminio pitch, where Ireland were a mistake-ridden mess before the interval.
Thanks to the first try of Henderson’s hat trick and the all-action play of wing forward Wallace, Ireland were in front by 19-15 at the changeover.
"In the first-half, I was poor," said Wood, and he most certainly wasn’t the only one. If Dominguez had been on the pitch to direct the traffic — his inexperienced replacement, Ramiro Pez, looked out of his depth at international level — Italy would surely have been in front.
The Irish eventually settled following what Wood referred to as the "proverbial halftime bollocking" from Gatland, as Henderson completed his three-try performance with some powerful running, wing Shane Horgan added another and while Italy lost their heads, O’Gara slipped through for his first international try.
Next on the list for Ireland is the visit of France — uninspiring 16-6 winners over Scotland in Paris — to Lansdowne Road a week from Saturday, but at least the signs are that Brian O’Driscoll will be back after injury. That game will be a different proposition. Meanwhile, England’s 44-15 annihilation of Wales has already marked them out as the hottest of championship favorites.
Ireland: G. Dempsey; S. Horgan, M. Mullins, R. Henderson, T. Howe; R. O’Gara, P. Stringer; P. Clohessy, K. Wood (capt.), J. Hayes, M. O’Kelly, M. Galwey, A. Quinlan, D. Wallace, A. Foley.