Paolo Garbisi’s long-awaited return came with a great deal of expectation and the fly-half lived up to it and more on his comeback for the Azzurri.
Still just 22 years old, Garbisi has quickly become Italy’s most important player since making his debut against Ireland three years ago in Dublin.
Up against the same opposition, but in a very different Italy team, Garbisi showed just why his playmaking is so important for Kieran Crowley’s team, who are bidding to become one of rugby’s most entertaining sides.
They certainly were at the Stadio Olimpico in a match where the world’s number one side were pushed to the limit until Mack Hansen’s second try ten minutes from time finally saw off the stubborn Italian resistance.
What was most impressive from an Italian perspective was how regularly they were able to open Ireland up, both from first phase and quick ruck ball.
It was in large part down to Garbisi, his range of passing and his decision-making already marking him out as one of the best tens in the game.
Up against an Ireland team forced into a late reshuffle with Garry Ringrose unavailable, Garbisi took full advantage of the lack of collective game time for Stuart McCloskey and Bundee Aki, regularly putting players through gaps in the midfield.
Lorenzo Cannone, the outstanding No.8, was the chief beneficiary, but it came thanks to the multiple options available to Garbisi when he got his hands on the ball.
In the build-up to the first Italy try, Garbisi takes a pass out the back from Ignacio Brex with Ange Capuozzo and Tommaso Menoncello – Italy’s two most dangerous strike runners – immediately to his right.
With Aki covering Garbisi’s running threat, as well as Capuozzo, James Lowe bites in to prevent Menoncello getting a free run through.
Garbisi has already spotted where the gap will be and goes further out with his pass, finding Cannone and taking Lowe out of the play completely.
Suddenly, the No.8 is striding forwards with options to his left and right, while Aki desperately tries to get back and Hugo Keenan finds himself in the unenviable position of having to turn his back on the man in possession.
While Ross Byrne gets across to stop Cannone, and Ireland look to have cover defence getting back, the speed of ball gives Stephen Varney the chance to pick and dart over before anyone can get to him.
We saw in November that Italy can be lethal when they get quick ball, running brilliant lines off their playmakers, and with Garbisi pulling the strings, the right pass is being made more often than not.
Italy almost had a second try soon after, again thanks to a Cannone break, this time off first phase.
This one was more intricate and came as the Azzurri had clearly highlighted a gap in the Ireland defensive set-up.
It was inevitable that McCloskey and Aki would not be as clued in as Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose would be, having marshalled both the Leinster and Ireland midfields for the best part of half a decade.
On this occasion, Italy go off the top of a lineout, initially asking skipper Michele Lamaro to pass out to Menoncello on a straight line with the instant pass out the back to Varney.
The scrum-half then waits for the Irish drift defence to be held by a charge from Brex, before feeding out to Garbisi.
Again, Garbisi has two dangerous strike runners arcing around, Capuozzo and winger Pierre Bruno, but rather than a miss-pass, this time he goes flat on the gain-line to Cannone, who is running a hard, in-cutting line between McCloskey and Aki.
Cannone goes straight between the two centres and is only stopped by Hansen and Keenan getting back for a desperate double tackle. With both Varney and Capuozzo on his shoulder, there is a case that the offload was on for a walk-in try.
Instead, Ireland scramble well and are able to slow the ball down before Andrew Porter chips in with a crucial turnover.
While it did not lead to points, it was another warning sign for Ireland, and a reminder of how threatening Italy can be with ball in hand.
Next up in Rome will be Wales, who have conceded 12 tries in three matches so far and are still searching for their first points in the Championship.
With the way Garbisi got the Italian backline working against Ireland, the Azzurri will fancy their chances of similar success at the Stadio Olimpico in Round 4.