Ireland extend Italy's record losing run with a scruffy 26-16 Six Nations win in Rome

Watch the tries as Ireland struggle to see off Italy in Rome

Defending champions Ireland stayed in contention for the Guinness Six Nations title with a scruffy 26-16 defeat of Italy, for whom this was their 20th consecutive defeat in the championship. Ireland climb to third in the table but remain long shots to retain the title they won with a Grand Slam last March.

Tries by Quinn Roux, Jacob Stockdale, Keith Earls and Conor Murray ensured Joe Schmidt’s team collected the bonus-point victory that many expected to be a formality, but for long periods an Irish win was in serious doubt.

Indeed, Italy turned round 16-12 to the good and threatening to replicate their solitary Six Nations win over the men in green six years ago. Ireland, having made numerous changes to their pack, struggled to produce the quick ruck ball that is a hallmark of Schmidt teams and their lineout wobbled, with four of their throws going astray.

Keith Earls, with his 29th Test try – drawing him equal third in Ireland’s all-time list – nudged Ireland ahead on 50 minutes and the Azzurri seemed to tire in the final quarter.

The bonus-point try arrived 14 minutes from time when Ireland’s driving maul – probably the most effective part of their game on the day – resulted in scrum-half Murray stretching out to dot down.

Ireland legend Brian O’Driscoll, watching from the ITV studio, highlighted his country’s 16 handling errors. “That was a very lethargic performance. They look low in confidence,” he said. “The half-backs are not playing anything like they did last year and that’s having a knock-on effect on the rest of the team.”

There had been little hint of the travails to come when Connacht lock Quinn Roux crossed under the posts 11 minutes in.

Tommaso Allan replied with a penalty but international rugby is an unforgiving arena, as Ireland’s second try illustrated. From the restart, the ball sailed over the Italy lifting pod that only half-hoisted Dean Budd in the air and, as Azzurri players dithered, Stockdale snapped up the loose ball and dashed down the left-hand touchline for his 14th try in just 17 Tests. “That is inexcusable for this level,” said O’Driscoll.

Italy’s purple patch came in the ten minutes before the break. They were playing with eye-catching ambition, making excellent yardage in the outside channels, and eventually a long pass by Allan put Edoardo Padavani over for his third try in as many Tests.

Trailing 12-11, Italy sent the home crowd wild with a long-range score that began with Tito Tebaldi’s breakout and ended with Luca Morisi getting over near the opposite corner.

Ireland had conceded five penalties in that first half – very uncharacteristic of world rugby’s most disciplined team – but with skipper Peter O’Mahony taking the lead, they tightened up their game and began to win the collisions that earlier went against them.

Earls’s try – his eighth against Italy, equalling the record by an Irishman against a single opponent – settled the nerves and a break from the Irish wing should have created a second try for Stockdale, but the ball went to ground.

Six Nations Italy v Ireland Peter O'Mahony wins a lineout

Man of the Match: not for the first time, Peter O’Mahony rose to the occasion when needed (Getty)

It was that sort of performance by Ireland, the accuracy not quite there. Murray’s try sealed the result and in the final play Stockdale burst out of his 22 after a missed penalty by replacement Ian McKinley that would have given Italy a deserved losing bonus point. Again, the pass went to ground and the final whistle brought a muted response, neither side happy.

Italy coach Conor O’Shea praised the intensity and ambition of his team. “You saw heart, you saw desire, we just need the execution,” he said. “It’s another result, another statistic. Hopefully people are seeing that this is not an Italy that’s going to roll over.”

Six Nations Italy v Ireland Italy fans before the game

Ever hopeful: some Italy supporters enjoy the sunshine ahead of the match at Stadio Olimpico (Inpho)

Early in the game, Ireland put centres Chris Farrell and Bundee Aki into an attacking lineout – but the throw went astray and the opportunity was lost.

Murray took over goalkicking duties during the match after another physical ‘battering’ for Johnny Sexton, who finished the match with his right thigh heavily strapped. Sexton’s late withdrawal enabled Connacht fly-half Jack Carty to come on for his Test debut.

Ireland’s next match is at home to France on Sunday 10 March and you have to think the performance may concern them more than the result. They can only reach 19 points, which among other things means that for Ireland to retain the title, England must fail to pick up bonus-point wins against Italy and Scotland at Twickenham.

Six Nations Italy v Ireland Johnny Sexton on the bench

Not his day: Johnny Sexton, his thigh strapped, looks on after being replaced late in the match (Getty)

Ireland’s extraordinary results of 2018, which included a Grand Slam, a series win in Australia and a first defeat of the All Blacks on home soil, are looking a distant memory.

They remain second in the world but with a lot of improvement needed to justify calls that they can win the World Cup next autumn. If this was a test of their strength in depth, you would be hard pushed to say they passed it.

The stats show that Italy outscored Ireland in line breaks (6-4), offloads (6-4) and dominant tackles (19-10), as well as achieving 56% territory – the third match in succession that Ireland have lost the territory battle. Ireland also conceded 18 turnovers.

As befits a sunny day, both teams chucked the ball around and the ‘metres carried’ figures – 780 Italy, 1,009 Ireland – were exceptionally high. Dave Kilcoyne, regarded as only third choice in Ireland’s loosehead rankings, made 17 carries and more than 100 metres.

Ireland conceded nine penalties by the finish (to Italy’s 14) and you can be sure that Schmidt will want that figure going south when the French visit Dublin in a fortnight’s time.

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