Ireland delivered a performance of potential champions in Rome, winning when short of their best to stay on course for a Guinness Six Nations Grand Slam.
Italy last tasted victory in this fixture a decade ago and this was the closest they have come to breaking that run.
Ireland ultimately held firm, securing a third successive bonus-point win in this year’s Championship but there will be much for Andy Farrell to stew on during the fallow week.
IRELAND CAN STILL IMPROVE
It seems strange to say it about the best team in the world but there is still room for improvement.
Some may attribute a lack of rhythm to the six changes made but among those restored to the starting XV were two Test British and Irish Lions in the form of Iain Henderson and Jack Conan.
Perhaps it was the double change at half-back but that would be unfair on Craig Casey and Ross Byrne, who impressed on their first Championship starts (more on that later).
It could just be that Ireland, who have now won 20 of their last 22 Test matches, are victims of their own success, with expectations higher than ever following their memorable win over France in Round 2.
There was no shortage of magic in attack, with a couple of brilliant early moves resulting in near-identical corner scores for James Ryan and Bundee Aki.
But they did not quite have the composure to manage the game and that made for a far nervier second half than it perhaps should have been.
Their refusal to take three-points on a couple of occasions while commendable was nearly costly, and on another day they could have been punished.
“It was a mixed bag,” reflected Aki. “We did some really good stuff and also did the total opposite.
“Our overall performance needs to be better and our discipline needs to be better, I was one of those whose discipline was not good enough.”
ITALY CAN MIX IT WITH THE VERY BEST
Italy’s stock continues to grow but for head coach Kieran Crowley, the lack of movement in the win column will be a massive source of frustration.
He must, however, be mightily pleased with their performance against the world’s top two, with this result and the Round 1 loss to France much closer encounters than in previous years.
Ireland and Italy enjoyed the greatest share of possession across the first two rounds, underlining their commitment to attacking, free-flowing rugby.
Both stuck to their guns at the Stadio Olimpico, enjoying an equal share of the ball, and Crowley will also be delighted to have seen the 20 match penalties split evenly too.
Their first try was as good as anything Ireland produced, with a brilliant pass from the returning Paolo Garbisi putting Lorenzo Cannone in space before Stephen Varney added the finishing touch.
There was some herculean defending on show too, most notably at the start of the second half as Ireland laid siege to the Azzurri line, hoping to pull clear.
But Crowley will lament another slow start which saw his side concede three tries inside the opening 19 minutes, proving costly come the final whistle.
WORLD-CLASS HUGO KEENAN
Hugo Keenan did his Player of the Championship bid no harm at all with another sensational performance.
His importance to Andy Farrell’s side was perhaps best illustrated by two crucial contributions in as many minutes.
He made a crucial last-ditch tackle to stop Italy crossing after a Lorenzo Cannone break, allowing Andrew Porter to win a much-needed turnover.
And after a well-worked set-piece, he collected Aki’s offload and bulldozed his way to the line, shrugging off a couple of tackles en route to his second try of the Championship.
Such is his prowess under the high ball that kicking against Ireland is quickly becoming a pointless exercise.
He won the full-back battle against Thomas Ramos in Round 2 and again got the better of another classy operator in Ange Capuozzo this week.
The tough head-to-heads keep on coming with Stuart Hogg and Freddie Steward still to come, but the Leinster man will take some stopping if he continues current form.
CASEY AND BYRNE FILL BIG SHOES
Ireland’s strength in depth has been well documented but actions speak louder than words and this was a chance for Craig Casey and Ross Byrne to seize rare opportunities from the start.
Both did so in style, crucially proving Ireland are able to cope without the influential Jamison Gibson-Park and Johnny Sexton.
Casey provided quick, effective ball throughout while Byrne’s range of passing and touchline kicking stood out, the 27-year-old going some way to locking himself in as the stand-in when Sexton is absent.
Munster scrum-half Casey relished the challenge on his first Guinness Six Nations start and had to show his mettle when recovering from a hefty blow in the first half after running into the sizeable figure of Niccolo Cannone.
“I got a shoulder to the throat but I’m not sure what else he could have done,” Casey said.
“It was brilliant [to start]. It has come full circle, I made my debut here during Covid so to have 15 family members over here for this one was great.
“I saw my parents and my sister at the end and there are a few more aunties, uncles and cousins who were going mental, it was great to see them.
“My father was my coach growing up so I’m delighted to make them proud.”
GARBISI DELIVERS REMINDER OF HIS QUALITY
Kieran Crowley spoke of his frustration at Italy’s defeats to France and England in the opening two rounds, with a lack of gain line success one of the main reasons cited for those losses.
Against England in particular, this was a real problem, as Italy struggled to enter England’s half in the first 40 minutes. But this was a different story in Rome and there was one big reason for that – the reintroduction of Paolo Garbisi.
Called straight back into the side after missing the first two rounds with a knee injury, Garbisi was the man to pull the strings and inject some energy into a team that was showing promise but was just missing that spark.
Garbisi was that livewire, and from the get-go when he found Lorenzo Cannone with a perfect flat miss-pass leading to Stephen Varney’s try, you could see the difference with him there.
The hands were slicker, and Ireland recognised his threat with ball in hand, in turn allowing Juan Ignacio Brex to act as a second playmaker, which caused Ireland serious problems.
It was not just in attack though that Garbisi made a big difference, but one of Italy’s big problems recently had been their exit.
Today, Garbisi and Varney were in sync and Italy were able to avoid the similar problems they encountered previously this Championship.
Ireland may have found a way to win, but with Garbisi at the helm, there is reason to be very positive from an Italian point of view.