Andy Farrell hailed the “top class” attitude of his players after Ireland kick-started their Guinness Six Nations campaign with a resounding 48-10 bonus-point success over Italy.
A brace from Will Connors, plus tries from Garry Ringrose, Hugo Keenan, CJ Stander and Keith Earls helped the Irish bounce back from successive defeats to Wales and France.
Ireland had a fortnight to stew on their worst start to a Six Nations tournament and responded emphatically, albeit against the championship’s weakest team, to secure a first away win of the Farrell era.
“I am really proud of the players. They’ve shown real character over the last couple of weeks,” said head coach Farrell.
“It’s not nice coming off two losses and waiting a couple of weeks to try and put that right.
“We talked about a test of character and they have stayed strong, they have stayed very united. As a group, I think they have all pulled together and showed their leadership in different ways.
“I thought we earned the right to score some points with the way that we approached the game in the first half. I thought our attitude was top class.
“We approached the game in the right manner, we paid the game the right respect and Italy the right respect, and I thought we punched away really well in the first half and the game opened up in the end.”
Ireland’s dominant victory in the Stadio Olimpico sunshine could have been by a far greater margin had they not had a trio of tries – scored by Iain Henderson, Stander and James Lowe – disallowed.
Captain Johnny Sexton, returning from a head injury, added all six conversions and two penalties as the mounting pressure on Farrell was temporarily eased.
The influential fly-half was delighted to record an overdue victory.
“I thought we were outstanding. Our intent and our concentration and how clinical we were at times was very pleasing,” said Sexton.
“The stuff we have been learning in training finally came out in glimpses today, so I am happy for everyone.”
Defeat for Italy was a 30th in succession in the championship, dating back six years to a victory over Scotland at Murrayfield.
Fly-half Paolo Garbisi conjured a moment of magic to set up a consolation try for Johan Meyer late in the first half and kicked a further five points but it was an all-too familiar story for the hosts.
Franco Smith’s men have now shipped 139 points and 19 tries in three successive losses and their cause was not helped by quickfire second-half yellow cards for replacement Giosue Zilocchi and captain Luca Bigi.
The South African rued the indiscipline and admits there was a gulf in class between the teams.
“After such a defeat you have to understand what to improve, but you have to give credit to Ireland, who were under pressure after two defeats and came to Rome with great determination,” said Smith.
“In Italy, at this level, many boys have to learn to play and be physically ready. They are proud and work hard, they will recover.
“They must have experience on the pitch, every week we try to improve. If all of Italy asks us to win a game, we always try, with heart and preparation.
“But for now they are better than us, even if we are doing everything to become like Ireland.
“These defeats burn. It is hard, but we need everyone’s support to take a further step.
“Unfortunately we made many mistakes and today the numerical inferiority has cost us dearly against a superior team “.