One down, one to go for Ireland, who moved to the top of the Six Nations table with a routine bonus-point victory over Italy with Hugo Keenan and Will Connors both scoring tries on debut.
Keenan scored two and had one disallowed in the first half while Connors finished off a driving maul to clinch the bonus point. If Andy Farrell’s side can claim another bonus-point win against France in Paris next Saturday, they will be crowned champions in the Englishman’s first Six Nations in charge.
They finished with seven tries in total – CJ Stander, Jonathan Sexton, Bundee Aki and Dave Heffernan also going over – but they may live to regret allowing Italy’s Paolo Garbisi over at the death. Their winning margin of 33 was a shade below their average at home in Italy in the past four years but that is understandable given how long it had been since their last outing. Should they beat France without a bonus point however, it is likely to mean that England will end up champions. Ireland’s points difference is now 23 better than England’s and even without their warm-up against the Barbarians on Sunday Eddie Jones will fancy bettering that by some margin in Rome.
It was a low-key resumption to the competition, seven and a half months since the previous match, but Ireland’s victory sets up next week’s finale nicely. Against a youthful Italy side, Ireland were rarely troubled, trotting along in second gear for the most part. They found favour with the referee Matthew Carley at the breakdown, which hardly meant for much of a spectacle but ensured the home side’s forwards enjoyed themselves, Caelan Doris in particular impressing.
For Italy it is a 26th defeat in a row in the competition and a mountain of work to do to get themselves into a position where they can be competitive in matches such as this. At least they managed two tries through Edoardo Padovani and the 20-year-old Garbisi – they have after all failed to score twice in this year’s competition already – and they began on the front foot after a powerful break through the middle from Jake Polledri led to a penalty in front of the posts for Garbisi and a yellow card for Conor Murray for a cynical infringement.
No matter for Ireland – they responded with the opening try with Murray still off the field when Stander forced his way over from close range before Sexton added a penalty. Garry Ringrose was forced off with a head injury shortly before the half hour but his replacement Robbie Henshaw fired a long pass to the left to Keenan, who did well to finish in the corner amid close attention from three Italy defenders. Two minutes later he thought he had another, following a fine break from Jacob Stockdale, who looked assured at full-back, but James Ryan was adjudged to have blocked Marco Lazzaroni in the buildup.
Just three minutes has passed when Keenan did get his second – the pick of the bunch after a delightfully timed kick towards the corner from Murray. Ireland were sluggish in the third quarter – as shown when Padovani picked off Sexton’s pass from an intercept try – but when Connors went over in the 61st minute, both Sexton on a crash ball and Aki, following a fine offload from Peter O’Mahony, soon followed. Dave Heffernan’s converted try in the final minute took Ireland to 50 points but Italy responded with a fine finish from Garbisi.