chasing grand slam Ireland avoided a great deal of grief to keep themselves on course Six Nations victory with a split 34-20 bonus points Italy.
Andy Farrell’s burnt-out side was far below any of the streaming bests in Rome, but ultimately triumphed thanks to two Mack Hansen tries that followed scores from James Ryan, Hugo Keenan and Bundee Aki.
Fearless Italy rocked the world’s number one side for most of the brutal match at the Stadio Olimpico.
Stephen Varney’s try, a spectacular breakout score from Pierre Bruno and 10 points from Paolo Garbisi kept the hosts Kieran Crowley in contention as they were down just four points with 15 minutes left.
But the Irish player, aided by Ross Byrne’s nine points, was spared the fear of staying on course to cleanly sweep the championship by making their way to their March appointments with championship rivals Scotland and England.
In form Ireland arrived in the Italian capital chasing a third consecutive tournament success, but lacked a lot of star names due to injury.
Green jerseys filled the terraces and witnessed the duo of Byrne and Craig Casey get off to a terrific start to a team led by a rookie half-back.
Capitalizing on a positive call two weeks ago to try France in a 32-19 win, James Lowe was denied a quick throw score on this occasion because replays showed he dropped the ball with one hand just before he hit the ground. Finish under the pressure of Ange Capuozzo.
Still, Irish disappointment was quickly tempered by reserve captain Ryan, who took advantage of a Lowe assist after a good load of Aki to get across in three minutes.
Italy have not won a home title since Declan Kidney’s shocking 22-15 win over Ireland ten years ago.
Sparked by the adaptable Garbisi and the variable skills of fast-back Capuozzo, these players contributed to an exciting encounter, and Welsh-born half-and-half Varney quickly responded by sneaking up on Lorenzo Cannone after a powerful escape.
Irish fullback Keenan then dived through a series of struggles before his side was instrumental in opening up in two tries, before Aki clearly exploded to stretch the scoreboard in the middle of a breathtaking first half after a Garbisi penalty cut the deficit briefly.
After a temporary lull in which Casey escaped being flattened by Italian key Niccolo Cannone and prop Finlay Bealham, Farrell’s men swept up bonus points with just 35 minutes per hour when Hansen finally dived wide from the right. constant pressure to help suppress home support.
But visitors had little time to enjoy the mat, as their advantage was cut in half to seven points in the final act of a gripping opening period.
Italy winger Bruno caught Aki’s pass perfectly in his own half and was thrown around 70 meters, rebalancing the competition and sparking fresh optimism among Azzurri fans.
Another Garbisi penalty cut the lead to 24-20 and Farrell dropped an anxious figure in the stands after Aki was denied a second score in the afternoon as replays showed he lost ground control before regrouping.
A Byrne penalty helped calm nerves before Hansen crossed the Italian defensive line nine minutes later to ensure Ireland could claim a worthy, if not convincing, victory.