The Ireland captain, Brian O'Driscoll, could not hide his relief after Ronan O'Gara's late drop-goal secured this victory in Rome. Italy had looked set for a shock win when their Australian-born full-back, Luke McLean, scored a try four minutes from time that put them 11-10 ahead.
O'Driscoll said: "The longer they stayed in the game the more of a threat they were going to be. We didn't kill them off and we spilled the ball five metres out. You can't have those sort of mistakes in Test rugby. You don't get away with them. But it was a great result to come back. We needed a drop-goal and we got it. We made a lot of uncharacteristic mistakes. But you can have a substandard performance and lose and have a substandard performance and win. Fortunately we won, but there is a lot of work to be done."
The 2009 Six Nations champions unleashed some thrilling running but they continually failed to capitalise upon it, making hard work of subduing stubborn but limited opposition. Worryingly for Ireland, Italy will be in the same pool at the World Cup in New Zealand in the autumn – the teams will meet in Dunedin on 2 October. Italy will have been encouraged by this match.
Ireland were missing 12 men, among them Jamie Heaslip and Tommy Bowe, but they still fielded a team with an average of 35 caps per player. The wing Fergus McFadden was the only debutant; the prop Mike Ross and No 8 Sean O'Brien were making their first Six Nations appearances.
Mirco Bergamasco kicked a penalty to put Italy ahead. Ireland's response was riddled with mistakes until the 20th minute, when Keith Earls and Luke Fitzgerald used quick ball to release Jonny Sexton. The Leinster fly-half was caught five metres out and McLean then pulled off a try-saving tackle on O'Driscoll. Italy were buckling but they were saved when Earls juggled with the ball and then Gordon D'Arcy dropped a simple pass.
In the 27th minute, Sexton kicked a penalty for 3-3. Bergamasco missed a long-range penalty but the Azzurri pack were pressing Ireland. Kristopher Burton missed a drop-goal before Bergamasco kicked his second penalty.
A powerful run from Denis Leamy started the second half well for Ireland and then they went ahead. Earls carried the ball up and after Sexton had returned from a blind alley play swept left, where O'Driscoll scampered over. Sexton converted. Earls and O'Driscoll then made inroads but the Ireland captain launched another wild pass that sailed into touch when the line was open for McFadden. D'Arcy then spilled the ball when he was two metres out.
Ireland were only 10-6 ahead and Italy's pack drove a maul to within 10 metres of the line. A series of scrums followed before the centre Gonzalo Canale was brought down. Leamy was sent to the sin-bin for killing the ball and Italy used their pack again before, in the 76th minute, slick handling from the backs sent McLean in at the left corner. Bergamasco missed the conversion, though, and O'Gara did the rest.
Italy L McLean (Treviso); A Masi (Racing Métro), G Canale (Clermont Auvergne), A Sgarbi (Treviso), Mirco Bergamasco (Racing); K Burton, E Gori (both Treviso); S Perugini (Aironi), L Ghiraldini (Treviso), M Castrogiovanni (Leicester), S Dellape (Racing), Q Geldenhuys (Treviso), J Sole (Aironi), S Parisse (Stade Français, capt), A Zanni (Treviso). Replacements P Canavosio (Aironi) for Gori, 10; A LoCicero (Racing) for Perugini, 36-40 & 64; V Bernabo (Treviso)for Sole, 50; C Del Fava (Aironi) for Dellape, 54; F Ongaro (Aironi) for Ghiraldini, 64; G Garcia (Treviso) for Sgarbi, 69; L Orquera (Brive) for Burton, 71.
Ireland L Fitzgerald; F McFadden, B O'Driscoll (capt), G D'Arcy (all Leinster), K Earls (Munster); J Sexton (Leinster),T O'Leary (Munster); C Healy (Leinster), R Best (Ulster), M Ross (Leinster), D O'Callaghan, P O'Connell, D Leamy (all Munster), S O'Brien (Leinster), D Wallace (Munster). Replacements E Reddan (Leinster) for O'Leary, 63; R O'Gara (Munster) for Sexton, 65; L Cullen (Leinster) for O'Connell, 73; T Court (Ulster) for Healy, 76; P Wallace (Ulster) for D'Arcy, 76; S Cronin (Connacht) for Best, 76.
Referee R Poite (France).
Pens: Bergamasco 2