O'Gara rescues shaky Ireland
February 5, 2011
Ireland wing Keith Earls reclaims a loose ball
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A late drop-goal from veteran fly-half Ronan O'Gara snatched a 13-11 victory for Ireland in their Six Nations showdown against a gutsy Italy in Rome on Saturday.
A 74th minute try from fullback Luke McLean had put Nick Mallett's Azzurri in touching distance of a first Six Nations win over Ireland before O'Gara's intervention dropped a veil of silence over a previously boisterous Stadio Flaminio crowd.
Ireland skipper Brian O'Driscoll put his side in control with a try immediately after the break but the hosts refused to lie down with their dynamic scrum and powerful maul proving constant thorns in Ireland's side. Mirco Bergamasco had earlier kicked two penalties to give the home side a half-time lead as the visitors dropped countless balls and butchered a number of chances with handling errors.
The post-mortem for Declan Kidney's side will not be pretty as they failed to win the tactical battle against a well-organised Italian side, reverting too often to whipping the ball wide without having made any progress on the front-foot.
Leinster wing Fergus McFadden won a first cap in a backline missing Tommy Bowe, Rob Kearney, Geordan Murphy and Shane Horgan due to injury and found himself on the periphery for long periods, while hotly-tipped tight-head Mike Ross will have had easier days at work against an Italian front-row not lacking in either experience or bite.
Italy fired the first shot in anger as a raking cross-kick narrowly missed its intended target, the onrushing Bergamasco, and Ireland looked rusty in the opening moments with David Wallace knocking on and recalled scrum-half Tomas O'Leary conceding possession with an under-hit box-kick.
It was the Munster No.9 who conceded the game's opening points after holding on under pressure from the excellent Sergio Parisse, with Bergamasco stepping up to stroke home a penalty on seven minutes.
Ireland worked through several promising phases on the Italian 22 but were repelled by well-marshalled defence from the home side, although Mallett was forced into an unwanted change as the promising Edoardo Gori left the field with a dislocated shoulder, to be replaced at scrum-half by Aironi's Pablo Canavosio.
The visitors continued to spread the ball wide at every opportunity but were consistently frustrated by aggressive tackling and their own lack of composure when in possession. Luckily for them, Italy regularly relieved the pressure with a series of penalties at the breakdown and set-piece.
O'Leary profited from a surge by Sean O'Brien to inject some momentum into proceedings and they duly found space for the first time through the Italian midfield. Quick delivery at the ruck allowed fullback Luke Fitzgerald to step through a gap and find Jonathan Sexton on his outside, but the Leinster playmaker was levelled by a backtracking Alberto Sgarbi, forcing a knock-on.
The away side redoubled their efforts as O'Driscoll stepped away from a couple of tackles along the wing, but again handling errors, from Keith Earls and Gordon D'Arcy, undid their good work and allowed the Azzurri to avert the danger.
Sexton got Ireland on the board with a penalty on 27 minutes but Bergamasco failed to restore the hosts' lead when presented with a kickable opportunity three minutes later. Italy piled forward as half-time approached but could not generate momentum at the breakdown, with Treviso fly-half Kris Burton settling for a wayward drop-goal attempt before another Irish infringement allowed Bergamasco to secure a three-point lead at the break with his second penalty.
Ireland took only three minutes of the second-half to settle their nerves with the opening try. Paul O'Connell snaffled the kick-off and Ireland cranked up the pressure, with O'Driscoll forced out five metres from the Italian line. The previously rock-solid Italian lineout faltered with a knock-on from Alessandro Zanni and Ireland went to work from the scrum, flooding the blindside after a surge from Denis Leamy. Sexton recovered his bearings after taking play away from the support before O'Driscoll wriggled across the line.
Sexton converted but almost threw away the lead from the restart as a looping pass to D'Arcy was picked off by Parisse, but the Italian skipper could not hold on to the ball.
Ireland continued their charge but were unable to stretch their lead, with two golden opportunities going begging thanks to familiar handling errors. First, a strong turnover by O'Leary following an Earls grubber was wasted by an overthrown O'Driscoll pass that had threatened a debut try for McFadden, and that error was followed up by D'Arcy's latest mistake as the ball was ripped from his grasp two metres from the try-line.
Ireland came perilously close to regretting these lapses as Italy set about their work at a powerful driving maul. Having taken play to deep within Irish territory they won a penalty and duly called for the scrum. Fears of a penalty try were raised by a warning for Irish loose-head Cian Healy but the Leinster man held his side up long enough for Parisse to play the ball.
Ireland were made to scramble in defence as a well-weighted pass from Burton sent Gonzalo Canale hurtling into space, but the Italian momentum died with a poor pass from the skipper to replacement Andrea Lo Cicero going to ground.
Seven minutes before the end, Italy grabbed another foothold when Leamy was shown yellow for the latest in a line of ruck infringements. Italy set about building a platform and hit Ireland with the type of strike move that the visitors had been looking for all afternoon. Pace on the ball from Canaviso and deep running angles gave replacement Gonzalo Garcia a sliver of space and his quick give and take sent McLean over in the corner.
Bergamasco's touchline conversion fell agonisingly wide of the near post and Ireland's most experienced players set about rescuing the match. Two surges from O'Driscoll in midfield were ably supported by the pack and replacement scrum-half Eoin Reddan found O'Gara in the right place at the right time once again.
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