Six Nations 2006
Italy run rusty Ireland close
February 4, 2006
Ronan O'Gara kept Italy pegged back with a fine kickong display
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Ireland emerged as lucky winners in the opening game of the 2006 RBS 6 Nations Championship as a dubious try and the kicking guile of Ronan O'Gara saw them defeat a well-drilled Italian side 26-16 at Lansdowne Road.
It was very much a case of the luck of the Irish as English referee Dave Pearson, whistling his first 6 Nations game, saw fit to award a 48th-minute try to Tommy Bowe, when TV replays showed the winger''s grounding was inconclusive, and that score changed the course of the game in Ireland's favour.
Pearson's failure to go upstairs to the television match official for confirmation will have grated new Italian coach Pierre Berbizier, whose side were well drilled, compact, fiery up front and surprisingly dynamic in the backs, outshining even fit-again Ireland captain Brian O'Driscoll.
For their efforts, the Azzurri deserved more - they really should have been celebrating their first away win in the tournament, and would have, but for O'Gara landing four penalties and two conversions from seven attempts at goal.
A try apiece from Jerry Flannery, making his first start for Ireland, and converted centre Mirco Bergamasco, saw the sides go in at the break, locked at 10-all. A yellow card for Italian fly half Ramiro Pez on 39 minutes aided the Irish cause, but the visitors battled bravely and it not until O''Gara kicked three penalties in the final 31 minutes that Ireland emerged as victors.
Former scrum half Berbizier, who captained France to victory in Dublin back in 1989, looked suitably pleased as his side opened breathlessly, but opened well.
Playing on the front foot, Italy garnered a 64% share of possession in the first quarter, and they were territorially dominant too. A nervy Ireland weathered the early storm but there were still little glitches - Munster hooker Flannery had a ball stolen by Italian captain Marco Bortolami in the lineout and also produced an overthrow.
Pez, whose selection was chuckled at by many an observer with his standing as third choice fly half at Perpignan, kicked the visitors in front with a 12th-minute penalty after Shane Horgan failed to release in the tackle.
O'Gara drew a quick chance to reply wide after he had been stung with a late tackle just inside the Italian half. Then Ireland hit a purple patch - Geordan Murphy, bulldozed through by Bortolami only moments early, was put into space by O'Gara on the left flank but his offload for Bowe allowed Canale enough time to get back and put the Ulster winger into touch.
Horgan saw action, two minutes later, on the right wing, he was bundled into touch but Paul O''Connell brilliantly picked off Fabio Ongaro's lineout throw, five metres from the visitors' line, and regrouping well, the Irish pack rumbled over with Flannery nabbing his first Test try.
O'Gara converted and the majority of the 49,000 spectators breathed a sigh of relief. Yet, Italy were still bossing broken play and on 29 minutes, they deservedly sniped through for a try. The impressive Pez swooped through a gap between O'Gara and Gordon D'Arcy, offloading for the younger Bergamasco brother to thunder through with his momentum carrying him over under the challenge of O'Driscoll.
Pez converted Bergamasco's 7th Test try for a 10-7 lead but O'Gara squared it up again on 40 minutes when he landed a penalty, awarded for a late tackle by Pez. The Italian fly half was unfortunate to be yellow-carded for the incident by Pearson.
On the whole, it was very poor display by Pearson, who should have sin-binned O'Driscoll on 38 minutes for an out-of-character stamp at ruck.
Despite being down to 14 men, Italy continued to look the better side in the early stages of the second half. With Pablo Canavosio coming off his wing to play scrum half and Paul Griffen shifting into the fly half role, Italy remained solid.
Italy barged up right to the line, winning a penalty fives minutes in. The New Zealand-born Griffen curled his place kick in sweetly from right to left for a 13-10 buffer.
That was to be the last time that the Azzurri led as Ireland gradually got the better of the second half, albeit, aided by Pearson.
Bowe's try followed, three minutes later. O'Gara carved open the Italian defence with a crafty cross-field kick to the left - his third of the afternoon - and this time, the move came off with the unmarked Bowe beating Ludovico Nitoglia and lunging for the line, locked in a tackle with Italian flanker Mauro Bergamasco.
TV replays showed that Bowe, with the ball tucked under his left arm, did not get conclusive grounding of the ball for the try, Bergamasco just got under the falling Ulster flyer as he crossed the line.
O'Gara added the conversion and watched with a wry smile as his 59th-minute penalty bounced in off the right upright. Still, the Irish were left grappling for points in the final quarter and needed a fourth O'Gara penalty, two minutes from time, to finally move more than a converted try in front.
Pez's second penalty on 61 minutes saw to that.
Italy deserved better, a Canale chip and charge down the right wing almost saw them in for a second try but flanker Josh Sole was hauled up for accidental offside. Pez missed a lengthy penalty with six minutes remaining to go seven points in arrears, but Ireland, after Bowe's 3rd Test try, never seemed like being beaten.
For O'Sullivan's men, next weekend's trip to the Stade de France will hold decidedly more fear now, but if Italy can repeat this sort of consistent 80-minute performance in the games to follow, then 2006 might not be another winless 6 Nations year for them.