Defending champions Ireland got their 2015 campaign off the ground with a resounding if flawed 26-3 win at the Stadio Olimpico.
Tries from scrum-half Conor Murray and flanker Tommy O’Donnell saw the men in green home in a scrappy and error-strewn encounter.
O’Donnell’s try represents something of a fairytale, as the Munster man was only in the side on account of Sean O’Brien pulling an apparent hamstring in the warm up. But the man of the match was undoubtedly fly-half Ian Keatley, who contributed four penalties and a conversion in a flawless kicking display.
All the Italians could muster in response was a penalty from Kelly Haimona and although the hosts looked dangerous throughout the game, they created very little.
The Irish, who led at half-time, will be delighted with an opening win, but they’ll know that they have a long way to go if they’re going to retain their crown.
It was the Italians that made the better start, as Irish skipper Paul O’Connell failed to control the ball from the kick off.
But the Irish defence scrambled well, and the men in green were able to clear their lines.
The visitors settled into their patterns thereafter, as Six Nations debutant Keatley calmed his nerves with a couple of decent kicks out of hand.
And this early pressure allowed the fly-half to acquire the first points of the contest as he nailed a seventh-minute penalty after Italian loosehead Matias Aguero was caught in an offside position.
As expected, the Italians were full of vigour and physicality, but the hosts’ momentum was disrupted by the concession of several unnecessary penalties in the first ten minutes.
The Irish looked relatively sharp in midfield, as Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne looked to inject the visitors’ attack with width.
But scoring opportunities remained depressingly scarce as the Italian rear guard bolted the door firmly shut, with the redoubtable Sergio Parisse making several trademark tackles to shore up the home defence.
But the Irish pressure was always going to tell at some stage, and on 20 minutes Keatley doubled his side’s advantage as the Azzurri were penalised for offside from a speculative Murray box-kick.
The Irish were thus 0-6 to the good, but the reigning champions weren’t exactly setting Rome alight despite dominating possession.
What will have pleased Irish coach Joe Schmidt most was the assured performance of Keatley, who was controlling the game superbly.
The Irish had a great chance to accentuate their advantage on the 30-minute mark as they were awarded a penalty as a result of the pressure Mike Ross was exerting on Aguero at the scrum.
Keatley launched the ball deep into Italian territory, and from the ensuing lineout the Irish set up camp in the Italian 22.
The Irish initiated attack after attack, but the Italian defence proved absolutely outstanding to keep the visitors at bay.
But the relentless Irish kept coming and Keatley extended the lead to nine points on 36 minutes with another sweetly-struck penalty.
The first half ended with the Italians finding some momentum, with Luke McLean and Haimona putting together some phases in the Irish 22.
The ferocity of the onslaught forced the visitors to concede a succession of penalties.
The Italians kicked the first of these to touch, and set-up one of their trademark driving mauls.
The Irish defence repelled the initial incursion well, albeit illegally and the Italians were gifted another penalty attempt on the stroke of half time.
The second attempt was manifestly easier than the first, and this time the hosts wisely elected to go for the posts.
Haimona made no mistake with the resultant kick, and his side entered in the interval only six points adrift at 3-9.
Given Ireland’s dominance of possession, the scoreline seemed a slightly distorted reflection of the game, but left both sides with everything to play for in the second half.
As the second period began, it was a similar story as errors and disruption abounded. The Irish frantically tried to find their rhythm, but struggled to attain much continuity in their game.
While the Italian defence was certainly resolute, the visitors offered very little from an attacking viewpoint.
Their front row remained a potent weapon, though, and when the Italians’ scrum collapsed on 57 minutes, Keatley continued his impeccable kicking performance to stretch the lead to 3-12.
With their attack off first phase proving blunt, the Irish resorted to plan B and utilised their potent maul.
With the visitors camped on the Italian line, the home side was forced to scramble desperately, and hooker Leonardo Ghiraldini was dispatched to the sin-bin for cynically disrupting the Irishmen’s impetus.
With the Italians down to 14 men, the visitors were able to hammer home their advantage and from the ensuing passage of play Murray darted over for the opening try. Keatley converted to make it 3-19.
The Azzurri were now severely under the cosh, and no sooner had Murray scored, than openside O’Donnell spotted a gap in the depleted Italian defence on 66 minutes to sprint over for his first Six Nations try.
With Keatley having been replaced, Ian Madigan added the extras to give his side a commanding 3-26 lead.
From a position of panic, the Irish now had control of the game. The hosts had their moments in the final ten minutes as replacement Tommaso Allan injected some fluidity into their stagnant back play.
The Italians battered away furiously at the Irish defence, but the men in green proved adept at closing them down.
To their credit, the tenacious hosts refused to give up the ghost and they seemed to have got over for a consolation try on 78 minutes as Haimona grounded the ball.
The matter was referred to the TMO by Pascal Gauz