IRELAND 46 ITALY 7
Ireland remained on course for a championship showdown with France in the final round of games with a comfortable in the end victory over the Italians on Saturday.
The points difference could sell be crucial and it was important Joe Schmidt’s side disposed of the Italians in style.
The victory ensured Ireland’s talismanic centre, Brian O’Driscoll, also got the Aviva Stadium send-off everyone had hoped as he set a plethora of new records – and a championship victory in Paris next Satuday would be the perfect send off for an icon of Irish rugby.
The Irish centre set a new all-time Test appearances record of 140 caps in his penultimate international bow, easing past former Australia scrum-half George Gregan’s tally.
The 35-year-old turned out at the Aviva Stadium for his 52nd and final international appearance in Dublin, also notching a new RBS 6 Nations caps record of 64.
Back-five forward Iain Henderson replaced the injured Peter O’Mahony at blindside flanker, the 22-year-old Ulsterman winning his first Six Nations start.
Italy refused to risk back-row trailblazers Sergio Parisse and Alessandro Zanni, so lock Marco Bortolami captained the Azzurri on his 103rd cap.
And to complete a unique occasion, Welsh referee Nigel Owens was taking charge of his 50th international fixture.
But the centre of attention was. He got a rousing reception as he led the team out and a standing ovation when he was replaced on 61 minutes. And in that time he lit up the stadium with three pieces of ‘Drisco magic’ which saw the Irish score three tries.
The first came in the seventh minute when the British Lion centre produced a little bit of magic early in the game, linking in a lovely –one-two with outhalf Jonathan Sexton, his reverse pop sending the Racing Metro through in the seventh minute for the opening try.
Italy were forced into an early front row replacement when influential tighthead, Martin Castrogiovanni, went off after seven minutes following the first scrum of the game a minute earlier. He was replaced by Lorenzo Cittadini.
Ireland scrumhalf Conor Murray was forced out on 16 minutes, replaced by Eoin Reddan.
Ireland had dominated the opening quarter, but failed to make the most of their chances, while Italy were dangerous on the counter and on 25 minutes they silenced the Dublin stadium when winger Leonardo Sarto went in for a try, converted by outhalf Luciano Orquera.
Ireland gained their composure again, but failed again to make the best of their chances. Sexton kicked a penalty on 30 minutes to nudge championship contenders 10-7 ahead.
A huge break through a gap by Sexton saw Jamie Heaslip make further inroads. Rob Kearney brought it back inside and eluded several tackles. Ireland then went via the forwards
but Cian Healy spilled ball forward into the ingoal area and Italy cleared.
There was still time for a another little bit of Drisco magic, this time winger Andrew Trimble the beneficiary of a superb pass to go in at the corner for the try. Sexton made it three from three with the conversion and Ireland had a healthier looking lead, 17-7, at the break.
Eight minutes into the second half Ireland, having pressed again and a quick tap from Reddan saw him dart through close to the line. The pack came in and Healy picked up and, aided by lock, Paul O’Connell, went over for the try. Sexton literally shaved the left pole with his conversion.
With the replacements going on all over from both teams the crowd willed O’Driscoll to stay on after he went down following a tackle.
And the centre then popped up in a backline move, managed to get an amazing offload away, the orange-booted Kearney brothers combined and Sexton finished the move off – but missed the conversion.
Replacement hooker, Sean Cronin went in for try on 70 minutes and Paddy Jackson, who had replaced Sexton converted from the touchline for a 34-7 lead.
Three minutes from the end O’Driscoll’s replacement Fergus McFadden crossed to increase the lead and Jackson drop kicked his conversion to take Ireland through the 40-points barrier.
Replacement prop, Jack McGrath forced his way over in injury time for a try – Jackson failing with the conversion.
The final announcement of the day was for RBS Six Nations man of the match – who else, but that man O’Driscoll – although Jack McGrath decided to steal the thunder in injury time by scoring a try -
Ireland: R Kearney (Leinster); A Trimble (Ulster), B O’Driscoll (Leinster), G D’Arcy (Leinster), D Kearney (Leinster); J Sexton (Racing Metro), C Murray (Munster); C Healy (Leinster), R Best (Ulster), M Ross (Leinster), D Toner (Leinster), P O’Connell (Munster, capt), I Henderson (Ulster), C Henry (Ulster), J Heaslip (Leinster)
Replacements (all used): S Cronin (Leinster), J McGrath (Leinster), M Moore (Leinster), R Ruddock (Leinster), J Murphy (Leinster), E Reddan (Leinster), P Jackson (Ulster), F McFadden (Leinster)
Italy: L McLean (Treviso); A Esposito (Treviso), M Campagnaro (Treviso), G Garcia (Zebre), L Sarto (Zebre); L Orquera (Zebre), T Tebaldi (Ospreys); A De Marchi (Treviso), L Ghiraldini (Treviso), M Castrogiovanni (Toulon), Q Geldenhuys (Zebre), M Bortolami (Zebre, capt), J Furno (Biarritz), P Derbyshire (Treviso), R Barbieri (Treviso)
Replacements (all used): D Giazzon (Zebre), M Rizzo (Treviso), L Cittadini (Treviso), A Pavanello (Treviso), M Vosawai (Treviso), E Gori (Treviso), T Allan (Perpignan), A Masi (Wasps)
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales).