David Wallace declared it was job done after Ireland's Six Nations victory over Italy at Croke Park yesterday. The flanker admitted the defending Grand Slam champions would have liked to have recorded a more comprehensive victory over Nick Mallett's side, but was content with the win. "We had a job to do and we went out and did it," he said. "It was a very physical game up front. It's good to get a win under our belts.
"I think in fairness to Italy, they never gave up. Of course you want to score more tries but that would be a disservice to Italy." Jamie Heaslip and Tomas O'Leary crossed to help establish a 23-8 interval lead, but Ireland then lost their way and never crossed the whitewash again. Italy, who scored their try through a Kaine Robertson charge down, staged a damage- limitation exercise after the one-sided first half that was highly effective and killed the match as a spectacle.
Ronan O'Gara kept the scoreboard ticking over and finished with 16 points until his departure with 15 minutes to go, but it was a far from convincing afternoon for Ireland. They failed to maintain their authority up front and suffered as a result, showing only the odd flash of brilliance, and must improve significantly if they are to have any hope of beating France in Paris on Saturday. It was a combative but typically limited display by Italy, who are often at their strongest in the opening match of the championship before falling away as injuries mount and morale deteriorates.
Missing their inspirational captain Sergio Parisse to a knee injury, they toiled throughout and even struggled at the scrum, a department they were expected to dominate. Martin Castrogiovanni, the feared veteran prop, came off worse against rookie Cian Healy, winning his third cap, to ensure a precious area of Azzurri pride was humbled. John Hayes, Ireland's own grizzled front-row forward, played his part at the set piece too as the 36-year-old celebrated his 100th Test cap and 50th successive tournament appearance. It was also a memorable afternoon for O'Gara, who marked his recall to the side at the expense of dead leg victim Jonathan Sexton by becoming the first player to score 500 championship points.
O'Gara reached the milestone in the 10th minute when he slotted a penalty after Castrogiovanni, the Leicester Tigers prop, had collapsed a scrum following pressure from Healy. The Azzurri were expected to control the scrum but instead Ireland were asking all the questions, while their open play was vastly superior too. Scenting the first try-scoring chance of the match in the 15th minute, they struck with clinical efficiency to send Heaslip over.
Andrew Trimble made the initial break with the support work of Paul O'Connell and Rob Kearney, the full-back who had such a fine tour of South Africa with the British & Irish Lions, keeping the move going until slick hands sent Heaslip in. The conversion by O'Gara established a 10-0 lead that would have been extended had Brian O'Driscoll's chip not slipped into touch following a brilliant piece of improvisation from the Ireland captain.
Craig Gower, the Australian dual-code international playing at fly-half for Italy, landed a long-range penalty that trickled over the crossbar but his side's error-strewn display continued, enabling O'Gara to pick off another three points. Compounding Italy's mounting problems was a yellow card for Gonzalo Garcia, brandished by referee Romain Poite for a spear tackle on O'Driscoll. Ireland took advantage of the extra man with Kearney's running causing problems until a disastrous line-out five metres out saw Leonardo Ghiraldini, the hooker, throw the ball straight to Leo Cullen. Italy were in disarray and when the ball was relayed, O'Leary took advantage of the space to dart over with O'Gara converting.
Kearney helped Italy finish the first half on an upbeat note when his clearance was charged down by Robertson, who then grounded the ball. Mirco Bergamasco had taken over the kicking duties and though he missed the conversion, he landed a penalty five minutes after the interval. But Italy's problems continued at the scrum with Castrogiovanni once again conceding to Healy, allowing O'Gara to continue his flawless run with the boot.
Italy were at their attritional best in the third quarter but Ireland also contributed to the lull in proceedings with some poor kicking, O'Gara the main culprit. With one eye on France, Declan Kidney, the head coach, brought off Jerry Flannery, Trimble, O'Connell and O'Gara. Paddy Wallace took over the kicking duties and obliged with a penalty before Gordon D'Arcy made a scintillating break that was bettered by Bergamasco during the last play of the match.
* With agencies