Ronan O’Gara landed a drop-goal with two minutes remaining to give Ireland a fortuitous 13-11 win in their opening Six Nations match against Italy in Rome on Saturday.
The teams had scored one try each in a scrappy affair that never reached any great heights, with the O’Gara drop-goal proving decisive against an Italian team looking for its first ever win over the Irish.
In fact for long period in the match it looked like the Azzurri could pull off a famous win.
They held a 6-3 lead at the break and a well-worked Luke McLean try five minutes from time saw them take a one-point (11-10) lead, only to be denied by the boot of the British and Irish Lions flyhalf, O’Gara.
Ironically, at that stage Ireland had been reduced to just 14 men, after flank Denis Leamy was yellow carded for a professional foul.
Italy took an early lead on seven minutes, as Thomas O’Leary was penalised for holding on the floor and Mirco Bergamasco kicked the penalty.
The game settled into a midfield stalemate until 20 minutes when Ireland started knocking on the door.
A good break that went wide left then saw Gordon D’Arcy cutting inside and off-loading to Luke Fitzgerald but Alberto Sgarbi got back to haul him down 10 yards out.
Ireland enjoyed more success down the left when a miss pass took Andrea Masi out of the game and saw Brian O’Driscoll almost get away.
The pressure finally told when Italy were penalised for handling in the ruck and Jonathan Sexton kicked three points.
Bergamasco pulled a penalty from 40 yards wide while flyhalf Kris Burton also missed a drop-goal attempt for the hosts.
But the hosts went in front again on the stroke of half-time as Bergamasco landed a penalty from out on the right flank, after O’Leary was punished for holding onto the man after a tackle.
Italy’s good humour didn’t last long after the restart, though, as Ireland stretched them right and then left from a scrum deep inside Italian territory with O’Driscoll bursting between props Martin Castrogiovanni and Salvatore Perugini to score.
Sexton kicked the extras.
Ireland should have had a second try on 57 minutes as they worked an overlap on the right in Italy’s 22 but O’Driscoll horribly overplayed his pass to Fergus McFadden.
Ten minutes from time Italy got the crowd going as they won a penalty 10 yards from the Ireland line and tried to heave their way over but after eventually getting the ball out, Andrea Lo Cicero spilled a poor pass from Sergio Parisse and the chance was gone.
But when Leamy was sin-binned for a trip, Italy sensed history in the making.
The Azzurri kicked a penalty to the corner and then got the drive on with the forwards before spreading the play left and after a miss pass and a half break from Gonzalo Garcia, McLean burst over in the corner five minutes from time.
Bergamasco missed the conversion but Italy led 11-10.
However, from the kick-off, Ireland went straight up the other end and O’Gara kicked over a drop-goal to give back the lead to the visitors.
Italy’s last roll of the dice was a long range drop-goal attempt from Luciano Orquera with the clock reaching 80 minutes but it had neither the distance nor the direction needed.
Man of the match: Brian O’Driscoll had his moments, some of them really enjoyable. Ronan O’Gara obviously landed the match-winning drop, but our award goes to veteran Italian prop Martin Castrogiovanni for the huge amount of work he got through in general play – not to mention his power in the set pieces.
Moment of the match: There is no doubt that it is Ronan O’Gara’s drop-goal two minutes from time.
Villain of the match: Easy decision. Denis Leamy for his trip and yellow card. He could have cost his team the game.
Pens: Bergamasco 2
Yellow card: Denis Leamy (Ireland, 73 – professional foul, tripping)