Fitzgerald snuffs out Italian fire

Italy 9 Ireland 38
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The Independent Online

Patience, control, discipline and concentration – Ireland's coaches offered an approving nod from the touchline at a solid job professionally achieved by their men on a golden winter's afternoon in Rome.

Ireland return home this morning justified in quiet satisfaction at the important blocks they are building in what they hope may be a Grand Slam year. Two tries in the final three minutes after an utterly flat second half may have put a gloss on the scoreboard, but that did not lessen Ireland's achievement nor dilute their efficacy. Overrunning Italian teams in the last quarter is a common phenomenon but Declan Kidney's team broke the Azzurri by soaking up their first-half fire and brio, before applying the killer blow right on the interval.

That was no easy task after two early Luke McLean penalties had given Italy a 6-0 lead and a third by the promising young outside-half had made it 9-7 until the verge of half-time.

True, Italy continue to look inferior down the back line and they were not helped by the second-minute visit to the sin bin of Andrea Masi for a wild coat-hanger tackle on the outstanding Rob Kearney. But, driven on by their elegant, talismanic captain Sergio Parisse, they whipped up enough of a first-half storm to give Ireland plenty to think about. The Irish defence had to be committed, durable and rigid in concentration to keep them out.

But then came the moments upon which the whole game turned. After the wing Tommy Bowe had seized a poor pass by Gonzalo Canale to sprint 65 metres for a try after 18 minutes, Italy badly needed any kind of half-time lead to sustain their morale.

They fought tigerishly to get it, leading 9-7 until the final moments of the half. But Ireland turned the screw like torturers, dragging them first left then right and then hammering down the centre off the fringes of ruck and maul. For tiring bodies and weary minds desperate for the sanctuary of the half-time dressing room, it was agony.

More so when, off 12th or 13th-phase possession in a single movement, Stephen Ferris smashed around the fringes and made the crucial incision for Luke Fitzgerald to score. Kearney converted and Ireland had snatched a crucial 14-9 half-time lead. Italy were never the same again.

Italy had shot their bolt and 14-9 quickly became 21-9 just six minutes into the second half when the industrious David Wallace crashed over for a try. What followed, until Brian O'Driscoll and Fitzgerald raced clear for late tries, was largely an anticlimax. Only the scrummaging shenanigans of Martin Castrogiovanni, especially, and Carlos Nieto offered much entertainment in the second half.

If Guy Fawkes had had a fuse as short as Castrogiovanni's, England's king and Parliament would have been blown to smithereens. At times, because of his indiscipline, he seemed more dangerous to Italy than Ireland.

Ireland won 47 balls in their opponents' 22 to just 3 by the Italians in the same position, a revealing statistic. But Ireland's supremacy was obvious far from the statistics board.

The Ireland coach, Kidney, said: "I was delighted with the win. We were patient from about 20 minutes in. Italy put us under pressure and we conceded penalties. But tight games, which it was at that stage, hinge on little things. We showed a lot of patience and getting that try just before half time was a huge, huge lift for us."

The coach of Italy, Nick Mallett, admitted: "Our problem was indiscipline. We gave away too many penalties and had two sin bins. We got too many kicks against us."

Italy: Penalties McLean 3. Ireland: Tries Fitzgerald 2, Bowe, D Wallace, O'Driscoll; Conversions O'Gara 4, Kearney; Penalty O'Gara.

Italy: A Masi; K Robertson, G Canale , Mirco Bergamasco, M Pratichetti; L McLean, P Griffen; S Perugini, F Ongaro, M Castrogiovanni, S Dellape, T Reato, A Zanni, Mauro Bergamasco, S Parisse (capt). Replacements: A Bachetti for Robertson, 20; C Nieto for Castrogiovanni, 33; C Festuccia for Ongaro, 43; G Garcia for Canale, 47; C Del Fava for Dellape, 48; J Sole for Reato, 48; Castrogiovanni for Perugini, 58; G Toniolatti for McLean.

Ireland: R Kearney (Leinster); T Bowe (Ospreys), B O'Driscoll (Leinster, capt), P Wallace (Ulster), L Fitzgerald (Leinster); R O'Gara (Munster), T O'Leary (Munster); M Horan (Munster), J Flannery (Munster), J Hayes (Munster), D O'Callaghan (Munster), P O'Connell (Munster), S Ferris (Ulster), D Wallace (Munster), J Heaslip (Leinster). Replacements: P Stringer (Munster) for Wallace, 34-40, for O'Leary 71; T Court (Ulster) for Horan, 55; R Best (Ulster) for Flannery, 60; D Leamy (Munster) for Ferris, 63.

Referee: C White (England).