A Ronan O’Gara drop goal three minutes from time saved Ireland’s blushes as they beat unfancied Italy 13-11 in their opening match of the Six Nations at the Stadio Flaminio on Saturday.
Italy, who had never beaten Ireland in Six Nations matches, had gone in at the break 6-3 up thanks to two Mirco Bergamasco penalties to Jonathan Sexton’s one. A 44th-minute try from captain Brian O’Driscoll then gave Ireland the lead in a surprisingly open match.
In a dramatic finale, the Azzurri went 11-10 ahead when Luke McLean ran over the line on 74 minutes only for substitute O’Gara to seal victory for a lacklustre Ireland.
“It was a very good team drop goal. He (O’Gara) has done it before but that’s why you need experience, said Irish coach Declan Kidney.
“It was far from perfect. We have to be more clinical but that goal five minutes at the end, you can’t coach that.”
Italy’s South African coach Nick Mallett praised his men for their efforts.
“We lost patience when we needed to keep the ball while Ireland had this experience and were able to play out the last three minutes,” he said. “But I don’t want to hear anyone say we lost the game. These boys didn’t lose today.”
Roared on by a capacity crowd on a pitch bathed in sunshine, Italy drew first blood with the reliable Bergamasco slotting a long-range seventh-minute penalty between the sticks.
Ireland, who had kicked off their 2009 Grand Slam campaign with an impressive 38-9 victory in Rome, betrayed early nerves with a string of dropped catches.
Twenty-year-old scrumhalf Edoardo Gori’s Six Nations debut for Italy lasted just 10 minutes when an injury brought Pablo Canavosio into the fold but it took another 10 minutes for Ireland to really threaten.
With several key players injured, Ireland played the running game at every opportunity and finally got their first points on the board to draw level on 27 minutes when Jonathan Sexton kicked a straightforward penalty.
Italy, who have picked up the wooden spoon in the past three competitions, fought back to go in 6-3 up at the break. After missing a more centrally positioned penalty on the half hour, Bergamasco kicked true from out wide on the stroke of half-time.
Ireland swarmed forward after the break and captain Brian O’ Driscoll ran in close to the corner on 44 minutes for the opening try to give Ireland a lead increased by Sexton’s conversion to 10-6.
But Italy were not done and went 11-10 ahead on 74 minutes when full-back Luke McLean took advantage of the extra man, with Denis Leamy sin-binned, and ran in at the corner.
Veteran O’Gara saved the day for the visitors by picking up the ball from 30 yards out and kicking the vital three points.
Italy forward Leonardo Ghiraldini said his side would take heart from the performance.
“We are disappointed but it was our first game and we proved we are very competitive and that we can beat anyone,” he said. “We are getting very close to the best teams.”
O’Driscoll said Ireland had flattered Italy.
“We felt we were creating a huge number of opportunities, our shape was excellent but by bad passing or handling we let Italy off the hook,” said the captain.
“Italy beating us one day is like us saying someday we are going to beat the All Blacks. We haven’t done it yet but the law of averages tells us one day it will happen. Today we were fortunate to have got out of it.”
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