LONDON, 4 Oct - As inquests go, Ireland coach Joe Schmidt will be spared the recriminations faced by his England counterparts following their own Rugby World Cup exit, but the Kiwi will still oversee some tough questions over how his side laboured to a 16-9 win over stubborn Italy at the Olympic stadium on Sunday. It was a victory which ensured their quarter-final berth.
Italy knew their chances of World Cup progression hinged on beating Ireland and, with the returning and influential Sergio Parisse leading by example, the Azzurri gave it a mighty good stab.
In the end this Pool D encounter perhaps ended how many had perceived the match to pan out: Ireland doing enough to hang on against a physically tough Italian side. Schmidt's men now face France in a mouth-watering clash, with the winner likely to avoid world champions New Zealand in the last eight.
Keith Earls (pictured) raced over for the game’s only score - the outside centre breaking former great Brian O’Driscoll’s World Cup try record for Ireland, with eight - while Jonathan Sexton’s 11 points with the boot gave the men in green just enough breathing space as time ran out on Italy’s World Cup campaign.
As captain Paul O’Connell also admitted afterwards, when a side “makes mistakes and is guilty of giving away penalties, you can’t find any rhythm”. Ireland were certainly guilty of that in a second-half which lacked any momentum, with Italy falling to within a converted try of a deserved draw.
"I think we have been lulled into a false sense of security having played two tier-two teams (Canada and Romania),” Schmidt said. “Italy came with a win-at-all-costs attitude and that made it tough for us and at times we made it tough for myself."
After Earls’ opening try after 19 minutes, when he finished off a neat Sexton dummy and Robbie Henshaw’s pop pass, Italy held firm in defence.
Indeed, the Azzurri were so buoyed by their maul defence that the Italian pack thunderously traded backslaps with each other as the first half ended with Ireland 10-6 to the good.
“We were stretched at times, even the try came a little bit too easy, too early in the game and we switched off a bit,” Schmidt admitted. “We believed things would happen rather than we had to make them happen and they almost made us pay for that."
That moment came in the second-half when Josh Furno angled to the Irish corner, but for Peter O’Mahony shepherding him just into touch.
Iain Henderson, O'Connell's second-row partner, was a deserved man-of-the-match after a standout performance, while Ireland have now won all 35 lineouts from their own throw - the only team to do so at the World Cup.
But that is for another day. First comes France, a clash that comes laced with “hearts on a string" and "when your body is on the line”, according to Schmidt.
After this bruising encounter, Ireland should be more than ready. Parisse, though, was perhaps a touch damning on how Italy were viewed as opponents beforehand.
“The world was expecting a big defeat,” the 32-year-old, who gave his all on his return to the side after a calf injury, said. “The entire world expected Ireland to roll over us and win by 50 points, but the team answered really, really well in a positive way."