Ireland kicked-off their defence of the Six Nations Championship crown with a comfortable but far from impressive 29-11 victory over Italy at Croke Park in Dublin.
First-half tries from No.8 Jamie Heaslip and scrum-half Tomas O'Leary put the hosts on course for victory in what was a largely disappointing clash that was plagued by slow ball and a lack of creativity. Fly-half Ronan O'Gara slotted 16 points with a penalty from replacement Paddy Wallace rounding out the scoring. An opportunistic try from wing Kaine Robertson and a penalty from fly-half Craig Gower gave the Italians some hope but three points from winger Mirco Bergamasco was all they could muster in the second half.
O'Gara got the nod for the game after Jonathan Sexton was ruled out with a dead leg suffered earlier in the week and Leinster blindside Kevin McLaughlin was handed his debut with Stephen Ferris also sidelined. Elsewhere, Andrew Trimble completed his comeback from injury and Gordon D'Arcy renewed his centre partnership with captain Brian O'Driscoll. Lock Donncha O'Callaghan was a late casualty with a knee injury with Leo Cullen promoted from the replacements.
Stripped of his captain and talisman Sergio Parisse, Italy coach Nick Mallett installed Alessandro Zanni at the base of the scrum with hooker Leonardo Ghiraldini taking on the leadership of the side. Australian-born Gower retained his spot at fly-half after shaking off concerns surrounding a knee injury.
In a far from flattering start to this year's Championship, slow ball didn't help either side's early incursions. A neat grubber from Gower threatened to open the Irish but the defence was too good while a similar effort from O'Gara carved Italy open but Heaslip was unable to claim the ball cleanly. O'Gara eventually opened the scoring after 10 minutes with a well-struck penalty that took him through the 500 Championship points marker.
The opening score appeared to settle Ireland and they continued to take the attack to Italy with Trimble taking a flat pass before injecting some pace down the touchline. The Ulsterman was hauled down on the 22 but the ball was recycled and worked through the hands to Heaslip who was able to stroll in for the first try of the game. O'Gara's excellent conversion cemented the home side's lead.
Unsurprisingly, Italy opted to keep it tight when they could in the hope their formidable front-row could give them some momentum but it was painfully pedestrian at times and what territory they gained was too often squandered and posed no real threat to the well-regimented Irish defence.
A moment of magic from O'Driscoll on his own 22 created the next Irish opportunity, with the influential centre chipping over the on-rushing defence before collecting the ball but sadly for the home crowd his cross-kick on the run had too much on it and went into touch. The Italian pack finally reaped some reward at scrum-time and Gower thumped over a long-range penalty but pressure from Paul O'Connell at the re-start allowed O'Gara to immediately cancel out the score.
One of a handful of turnovers at the lineout gave Ireland great field position on the half hour and some neat handling from O'Driscoll almost put O'Gara away. But a dangerous spear tackle from Gonazlo Garcia on O'Driscoll brought the play to an end and saw the Italian sin-binned before O'Gara slotted his third penalty.
Another crowd-pleasing surge from the Irish soon followed, with quick ball the key to a length of the field move that was again let down by some poor handling. But there was more joy for Ireland at the resulting lineout with Cullen claiming the ball before driving for the line and O'Leary picked up the pieces before wriggling over the line for his first try in an Ireland shirt. O'Gara's impeccable kicking display continued with the extras.
From absolutely nowhere Italy grabbed a lifeline in the game. An aimless kick from Gower was fielded by Kearney in the Irish 22 but his clearance was charged down by Robertson who pounced on the loose ball to grab an unexpected try. In another surprise, winger Bergamasco lined up the conversion but his effort sailed wide of the posts.
The boot dominated the early exchanges after the break and Bergamasco reduced the arrears with a well-taken penalty when Ireland were penalised at the breakdown. But again the Italians undid their hard work by conceding a penalty of their own at the next scrum that O'Gara slotted to restore his side's advantage.
The kick-fest continued to plague the game with neither side able to stamp their authority on the game until Italy fullback Luke McLean was caught in possession inside his own 22 to give Ireland an attacking scrum. O'Gara then opted to kick to the corner following the Italians' latest failure to live up to their billing as a forward threat. The Irish forwards kept it tight off the lineout but were guilty of the slow ball crimes their opponents had been guilty of and coughed up possession allowing Italy to clear.
Ireland attempted to return to a running game as the clash entered the final quarter with Tommy Bowe and Keith Earls giving reason for hope but the move came to another disappointing end. Wallace then injected some much-needed urgency but an offside infringement curtailed the action with the replacement fly-half slotting the easy penalty.
With the Italians clearly tiring, Ireland upped the tempo but were unable to find a score to embellish an otherwise dour encounter. Instead it was Italy who ended the game on the front foot but it was a familiar story as the move floundered in the final third.