Ireland set up a mouth-watering quarter-final date with Wales next week after overcoming Italy 36-6 at Forsyth Barr Stadium on Sunday.
Ireland created a mouth-watering quarter-final date with Wales next week after overcoming Italy 36-6 at Forsyth Barr Stadium on Sunday.
There was little to separate the two nations at the break with three Ronan O'Gara penalties edging Mirco Bergamasco's two. But after their rest, the Irish stepped up through the gears in Dunedin.
Scores from Brian O'Driscoll and Keith Earls sealed the victory and with it, Italy's tournament in New Zealand came to a premature conclusion.
What will be a concern Ireland though will be the injury to hooker Rory Best, who apparently went straight to hospital with a collar bone injury. With Jerry Flannery also recently ruled out of action, Sean Cronin is now first-choice number two.
Italy had made their presence felt in the first minute via their defensive line as Best found himself in the midst of a blue wave of Azzurri tacklers. And it seemed to send a message to Ireland as O'Gara, who kept his spot ahead of Jonathan Sexton, soon began to take territory.
We knew going in there was going to be spice in the fixture and it came as no surprise that was what brought about the first points of the evening, Gonzalo Canale deemed the guilty party after some shenanigans with Gordon D'Arcy. O'Gara stepped up to make it 3-0.
Back to the nitty gritty Italy went, this time demolishing the opposition scrum on the Irish 22 to allow Bergamasco a sweet levelling effort. Parity did not look like lasting long though when hands at ruck-time from Italy allowed O'Gara to push what seemed like the 'home' side back in front. He missed from the right but soon followed it up with a successful effort.
Despite the 62 per cent territory at this stage, Ireland were certainly not having things all their own way under the roof in Dunedin and Italy in fact almost opened the try account when a sudden wealth of possession saw them pitch up camp five metres from the green line. Three points was their consolation.
The teams remained deadlocked going past the half-hour mark. However, that could have been very different for Ireland had referee Jonathan Kaplan not spotted a forward pass from Sean O'Brien to an untouched Tommy Bowe. The right wing celebrated the try under the posts along with the rest of the fans, yet it was short-lived as the South African had already blown his whistle. Italy had survived despite being under the cosh. However, it didn't last.
Ireland kept on knocking at the door and finally got reward for their efforts in two fold. While key prop Martin Castrogiovanni was hobbling from the action – and the 2011 Rugby World Cup – O'Gara cooly pushed Ireland back in front by nine points to six as the first-half clock counted down. Bergamasco should have made it 9-all before the break but struck the post from 40 metres and then, for reasons unknown, Italy had a penalty reversed by Kaplan.
Declan Kidney must have been quietly satisfied during the break at how the game was progressing while knowing they would need a couple more scores to create a comfortable finish. And he soon got his wish from two of his old stagers when first O'Gara knocked over another three before O'Driscoll finished a superb initial break of the line from right wing Bowe. It looked like the Italians' hopes had been firmly tucked away for another four years.
But the Irish weren't done there and soon went about extending their 19-6 advantage with a free-flowing move across the backs that had Italy clutching desperately for a foothold. This time it was young Keith Earls who joined the party, a party that filtered into in the stands.
Replacement fly-half Sexton rubbed further salt into Azzurri wounds on 70 minutes with a penalty as the scoreline became 29-6 before Earls grabbed a brace of scores following good work from Andrew Trimble. The 'Octagon' town centre of Dunedin was set have its eyes well-and-truly opened by the masses of jubilant Irish fans decked out in green.
Man of the match: He just continues to get better and better in a green jersey. Sean O'Brien was again immense for Ireland in what is shaping up to be a lethal weapon of a back-row.
Moment of the match: Just when Ireland wanted their old stagers to step up and be counted, Tommy Bowe picked the Italian lock to send over captain Brian O'Driscoll.
Villain of the match: The streaker in the North Stand, who was wearing only a green cape.
Tries: O'Driscoll, Earls 2
Con: O'Gara 2, Sexton
Pen: O'Gara 4, Sexton
Pen: Bergamasco 2
Ireland: 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Tommy Bowe, 13 Brian O'Driscoll (capt), 12 Gordon D'Arcy, 11 Keith Earls, 10 Ronan O'Gara, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Jamie Heaslip, 7 Sean O'Brien, 6 Stephen Ferris, 5 Paul O'Connell, 4 Donncha O'Callaghan, 3 Mike Ross, 2 Rory Best, 1 Cian Healy.
Replacements: 16 Sean Cronin, 17 Tom Court, 18 Donnacha Ryan, 19 Denis Leamy, 20 Eoin Reddan, 21 Jonathan Sexton, 22 Andrew Trimble.
Italy: 15 Andrea Masi, 14 Tommaso Benvenuti, 13 Gonzalo Canale, 12 Gonzalo Garcia, 11 Mirco Bergamasco, 10 Luciano Orquera , 9 Fabio Semenzato, 8 Sergio Parisse (c), 7 Mauro Bergamasco, 6 Alessandro Zanni, 5 Cornelius van Zyl, 4 Quintin Geldenhuys, 3 Martin Castrogiovanni, 2 Leonardo Ghiraldini, 1 Salvatore Perugini.
Replacements: 16 Fabio Ongaro, 17 Andrea lo Cicero, 18 Marco Bortolami, 19 Paul Derbyshire, 20 Edoardo Gori, 21 Riccardo Bocchino, 22 Luke McLean.
Referee: Jonathan Kaplan (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Bryce Lawrence (New Zealand), Chris Pollock (New Zealand)
Television match official: Shaun Veldsman (South Africa)
By Adam Kyriacou at Forsyth Barr Stadium