LONDON: Ireland had just about enough flair behind the scrum to beat Italy 28-17 in Rome on Sunday and remain on track for their first Six Nations title in 20 years.
At times in this tough, unglamorous encounter, it looked like Italy might catch Ireland cold and register another upset on the first weekend of the tournament after England were beaten in Wales and Scotland ran France close on Saturday.
But a break in either half from captain Brian O'Driscoll, who limped off injured towards the end of the match, produced tries for Geordan Murphy and Peter Stringer, Denis Hickie added a third close to the end while Ronan O'Gara kicked three penalties and two conversions.
Prop Martin Castrogiovanni scored Italy's try at the death after fullback Roland de Marigny had kept the home side in the game with three penalties, having taken over from Luciano Orquera, who managed just a single penalty from four attempts.
It was a hell of a tough game, Ireland coach Eddie O'Sullivan told BBC TV. We struggled in the first half because we didn't have the football.
Italy played really well. They held the football for long periods and handled the ball very well in terms of kicking it. I know that's an oxymoron.
Italy had all the early pressure with Orquera giving the home side the lead in the eighth minute.
It was not until 20 minutes were on the clock that Ireland finally unleashed their backs and it brought them their first score when O'Gara converted a penalty.
Minutes later, O'Driscoll took a flat pass at inside centre, made the most of the dummy scissors and ran 20 metres before finding his fullback Murphy, who went over in a despairing cover tackle.
O'Gara missed the conversion but the Irish had a lead for the first time in the match at 8-3, although centre Gordon D'Arcy's departure with a hamstring injury caused some concern.
Italian pressure continued but so did Onquera's profligacy and after he missed his third kick fullback De Marigny replaced him, reducing the deficit to 8-6 at the break.
De Marigny gave Italy back the lead with a penalty four minutes after the break before O'Driscoll again sparked his side with simple pace and power enough to take him past Andrea Masi.
O'Driscoll fed Hickie, who moved it on to his fellow winger Shane Horgan and as the big Leinster man was being pushed into touch he flicked the ball over his head and Stringer cantered over the line.
O'Gara converted and five minutes later added a long-range penalty, though Italy responded with a strong period of play that included another De Marigny penalty and try-scoring opportunity to winger Ludovico Nitoglia, who spilled the ball in the process of touching down.
The momentum then swung back to Ireland when O'Gara added another penalty before Hickie capitalised on a turnover to outsprint some tired Italians for Ireland's third try and a 23-12 lead.
Castrogiovanni's try was a mere consolation and Italy will rue the fact that for all their forward domination they did not have the backline talent to better the Irish.
We said before the game that it may take us until 10 minutes before the end of the game that this would be won and it was certainly the way it turned out, O'Sullivan added. Reuters