Ireland were given a Six Nations scare by Italy but the defending champions fought back in the second half to claim an attritional 26-16 bonus-point win at Stadio Olimpico.
Vibrant Italy were sensing a sensational victory when they led 16-12 at half-time in Rome on Sunday, Edoardo Padovani and Luca Morisi crossing following tries from Quinn Roux and Jacob Stockdale.
The Azzurri were unable to prevent a 20th consecutive defeat in the tournament against head coach Conor O’Shea’s country of birth, as scores from Keith Earls and Conor Murray spared Ireland’s blushes.
A hard-fought second successive triumph moves the holders up to third place, three points adrift of leaders Wales with two matches remaining.
Italy were hugely impressive in a first half which included two Tommaso Allan penalties, but ran out of steam in the second as Ireland ground them down.
Ian McKinley failed to salvage what would have been a richly deserved first point for Italy when he dragged a penalty wide right at the end.
— Irish Rugby (@IrishRugby) February 24, 2019
Ireland suffered an early blow when Bundee Aki failed a head injury assessment, but they started to go through the phases ominously and Roux dotted down at the foot of the post 11 minutes in.
Allan got Italy – missing captain Sergio Parisse due to concussion – on the board from the tee, but they gifted Ireland a try by making a mess of the restart, the lethal Stockdale capitalising with a clinical finish.
The Azzurri were undeterred by that setback, Allan slotting over another penalty and then laying on a brilliantly-worked try for Padovani with a sublime cut-out pass after a barnstorming break from Jayden Hayward.
Italy had the bit between their teeth and they were deservedly in front later in the first half after Tito Tebaldi intercepted deep in his own half and Morisi barged his way over as Ireland were unable to recover from being caught on the break.
Ireland regrouped at the interval and the lively Earls put them back in front following a long spell of pressure.
Earls almost added a second with a rapid break before Murray eased the nerves, diving over from close range from the back of a driving maul and converting his own score.
Jack Carty came on for a late Ireland debut and there was drama at the death when McKinley was off target from the tee and Ireland threatened to break away for another score.
— Guinness Six Nations (@SixNationsRugby) February 24, 2019
HAYWARD AND TEBALDI A THORN IN IRELAND’S SIDE
Rampaging full-back Hayward and canny scrum-half Tebaldi were outstanding in the first as Italy showed the strides they have made. Hayward made 11 carries in the match and beat six defenders, including an incisive burst to set up his side’s first try. Tebaldi pulled the strings as Italy were able to generate quick ball and played a big part in the second try.
O’MAHONY LEADS BY EXAMPLE
Peter O’Mahony produced a captain’s performance in the absence of the rested Rory Best, claiming the man-of-the-match award after making 14 tackles and driving Ireland on as they rallied despite being a long way from top gear.
– Ireland have won their last four away games in the Six Nations, their best run on the road since winning four on the bounce from 2006 to 2007.
– Murray assisted two tries and has now laid on 18 in the Six Nations, more than any other player since Italy joined the tournament in 2000 – overtaking Jonny Wilkinson and Ronan O’Gara.
Ireland will attempt to make it three wins in a row when they host France on Sunday March 10, a day after Italy make the trip to Twickenham to face an England side wounded from their defeat to Wales.
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