Hugo Keenan and Will Connors scored debut tries to inspire Ireland to a convincing bonus-point victory against Italy that moves them top of the Guinness Six Nations table.
Winger Keenan crossed twice in the first half, cutting in from the left to power through a couple of tackles for his first before latching onto a Conor Murray kick and dotting down for his second.
CJ Stander had already got the ball rolling for Ireland with his 11th Test try, while Connors secured the all-important bonus-point try from a driving maul.
Johnny Sexton, Bundee Aki and Dave Heffernan also crossed for the Men in Green, while Italy’s Edoardo Padovani and Paolo Garbisi scored tries for the Azzurri.
The win moves Ireland to the summit of the Championship table and they lead England and France by just one point ahead of Super Saturday.
If Andy Farrell’s men secure another bonus-point win against France in Paris next weekend, they will be crowned champions for the second time in three years.
The afternoon started promisingly for Italy and their talented fly-half Garbisi, who took just two minutes to flash his potential on his international debut.
The 20-year-old played a perfectly-timed pass to Jake Polledri in midfield and the No.8 found a gap and burst upfield, before slipping a pass to scrum-half Marcello Violi.
Ireland scrambled back to drag him down just before the try-line but a penalty was awarded, Murray was sin-binned and Garbisi kicked the points.
The hosts, momentarily stunned, hit back in style as a choke tackle on Carlo Canna drew a penalty inside Italy territory and from the resulting passage of play, Stander drove over the line.
That settled Ireland’s nerves and captain Sexton extended their lead to seven points with a simple penalty from in front of the posts.
The Azzurri enjoyed 58 per cent possession in the first 20 minutes – according to MatchStats Powered by AWS – but they struggled to dent Ireland’s defence, with debutant flanker Connors and prop Andrew Porter winning turnovers inside the Ireland half.
They were two of the five turnovers Ireland won in the first 28 minutes and the last of those led to a second try, as they worked it left from a lineout where Keenan stepped inside from the touchline, broke a couple of tackles and planted the ball down.
The winger had another try ruled out when James Ryan was penalised for obstruction minutes later but he did not have to wait too long for his second.
Five minutes before half-time, Italy were on the front foot and moving towards the Ireland try-line when Stander, the Championship’s turnover king with five steals in the first three rounds, wrestled the ball loose and started a move that ended with Murray’s measured kick in behind for the pacey Keenan to chase and dot down.
BONUS POINT SECURED
Italy re-grouped at half-time and enjoyed a strong spell of possession, testing and probing Ireland’s defence.
However, it was an Ireland error which let them back into the game as a Sexton pass was intercepted by winger Padovani and he ran under the posts unopposed.
Ireland were unperturbed and hit back with the all-important fourth try from a driving maul, flanker Connors with the honour of touching down.
That injected some impetus into Ireland’s game and they wrapped it up with 15 minutes to go when Sexton scored from close range.
Ireland turned to the bench, bringing on the likes of prop Ed Byrne and scrum-half Jamison Gibson-Park for debuts, but it was Peter O’Mahony who caught the eye.
The flanker produced a magical off-load out of the back of his hand to set up centre Aki to score Ireland’s sixth try with ten minutes to go, before replacement hooker Heffernan crossed for a seventh off the back of another maul.
Italy had the last laugh when Garbisi swerved a couple of tackles on a mazy run to score at the death.
Where to start? Stander’s try got Ireland up and running, while both of Keenan’s were superb finishes and displayed different skills.
But Ireland’s mission was to leave the Aviva Stadium with a bonus point and they secured that mid-way through the second half.
Through three rounds, Ireland’s seven tries came from the set-piece and so it was no surprise to see the driving maul at the heart of such a key move, with Connors planting the ball down.
Ireland go to France next week with the title in their sights.
It’s hard to look beyond Hugo Keenan, who made more than 100 metres with ball-in-hand and scored two tries on his Test debut.
However, Will Connors was as equally outstanding and named Man of the Match for an all-action display that saw him win turnovers and score a crucial try.
Jacob Stockdale also ran for more than 100 metres on his first Test appearance at full-back, while Tadhg Beirne made all 16 of his attempted tackles.