Ireland could not have complained of a lack of support from the crowd at this hallowed home of Gaelic games; with seats installed on the famed Hill 16 ahead of next Wednesday's football international, the attendance was reduced, but 75,000-plus souls gave full voicewhenever the men in green did something uplifting, which was not often.
And then, with normal time up and Ireland foolishly kicking to allow Italy a counterattack, Eddie O'Sullivan's face appeared on the big screens. Boos rang out from the Davin Stand, at the opposite end to Hill 16, and echoed around the stadium. On a chill day when half the Croke Park lights went out due to a power cut, Ireland's head coach must have been feeling the heat.
Yes, Ireland won, and so their perennial pursuit of a first Grand Slam since 1948, and the Triple Crown, Six Nations' Trophy and all the other baubles, is up and running. Too many of the team appear to be treading water, though, and there is a sense of overdue change welling like a tsunami at the flimsiest of dams. "It was a performance that turned ugly," said O'Sullivan, "and we had to dig out an ugly win."
For most of the first half Ireland looked set for a becoming victory which would mark the emergence from four months painfully digesting their World Cup effort. Ronan O'Gara kicked a penalty after 11 minutes when Italy's new captain, Sergio Parisse, was halted on the gain line by David Wallace and O'Gara, and scrum-half Pietro Travagli dabbled illegally with his foot.
Six minutes later, Ireland scored a neat try. O'Gara's miss-pass to Geordan Murphy from a midfield scrum encouraged the wing to run; crucially, Murphy spurned the temptation to kick – if only players from both sides had followed that example – and Donncha O'Callaghan, the second-row, rumbled back towards the middle. O'Gara cross-kicked to Andrew Trimble on the right wing, who drew Mauro Bergamasco and Pablo Canavosio before giving a lovely one-handed scoring pass inside to Girvan Dempsey for the 32-year-old full-back's 19th try in 79 Tests. O'Gara converted for 10-0.
Gradually, though, Irish promise faded. Bergamasco tackled superhumanly, and if he prompted a flurry of forward snarling, it gave the Italian underdogs impetus. The novice Andrea Masi at fly-half – 36th cap; first start in the No 10 jersey – grew into his role and fired intelligent passes left and right like an old hand. This began to look a good call by Italy's new coach, Nick Mallett, once of the Springboks.
David Bortolussi's penalty cut Ireland's lead before half-time, at which point BBC Radio, among others, were off-air and O'Sullivan in his coaching "box" had no touchline link due to the electricity outage. Ireland's muscle was flickering too. They were forced back in ruck and maul, and Simon Easterby went to the sin-bin (whence Italy's Santiago Dellape had been in the 31st minute for a punch) for a brainless flip of the ball off the deck.
Bortolussi missed a long-range penalty; O'Gara put an easy one over for 13-3 when Brian O'Driscoll turned water into wine from a poor chip and Italy were panicked into killing a ruck.
Italy pressed on, putting penalties into touch in the Ireland 22. From one of them an irresistible maul ended with the prop Martin Castrogiovanni claiming a try, given after lengthy deliberation. Ireland, who had lost Gordon D'Arcy to a broken arm which will need an operation, responded with O'Gara's third penalty but were never comfortable. "In the last 10 minutes we were still in the game," said Mallett, "and that is important to this Italian team." Not to mention perturbing to the Irish.
Another daft penalty, conceded by the replacement Mick O'Driscoll, allowed Bortolussi another three points, then a barge through an Ireland line-out went unpunished by O'Gara, who pushed a penalty wide. Among Ireland's bench boys, Rob Kearney brought a spark to thebacks and the hooker Bernard Jackman put himself about. There is hope for Ireland, but glory is a fair way distant.
Ireland: G Dempsey (Leinster); A Trimble (Ulster), B O'Driscoll (Leinster, capt), G D'Arcy (Leinster), G Murphy (Leicester); R O'Gara (Munster), E Reddan (London Wasps); M Horan (Munster), R Best (Ulster), J Hayes (Munster), D O'Callaghan (Munster), M O'Kelly (Leinster), S Easterby (Llanelli Scarlets), D Leamy (Munster), D Wallace (Munster). Replacements: R Kearney (Leinster) for D'Arcy, 25; J Heaslip (Leinster) for Easterby, 59; B Jackman (Leinster) for Best, 60; M O'Driscoll (Munster) for O'Kelly, 66; T Buckley (Munster) for Hayes, 73; P Stringer (Munster) for Reddan, 74.
Italy: D Bortolussi (Montpellier); K Robertson (Viadana), G Canale (Clermont Auvergne), Mi Bergamasco (Stade Français), P Canavosio (Castres); A Masi (Biarritz), P Travagli (Overmach Cariparma); A lo Cicero (Racing-Métro), L Ghiraldini (Calvisano), M Castrogiovanni (Leicester), S Dellape (Biarritz), C del Fava (Ulster), J Sole (Viadana), S Parisse (Stade Français, capt), Ma Bergamasco (Stade Français). Replacements: E Galon (Overmach Cariparma) for Canavosio, 23; A Zanni (Calvisano) for Sole, h-t; C Festuccia (Racing-Métro) for Ghiraldini, 54; S Perugini (Toulouse) for Lo Cicero, 54; T Reato (Rovigo) for Del Fava, 73; L Cittadini (Calvisano) for Castrogiovanni, 79.
Referee: J Kaplan (South Africa).Reuse content