Debutants Hugo Keenan and Will Connors were among the try scorers as Ireland went top of the Six Nations table courtesy of a comfortable 50-17 win over Italy as the tournament returned after a seven-month delay.
Wing Keenan crossed twice in the first half after CJ Stander darted over in reply to Paolo Garbisi’s early penalty.
Edoardo Padovani picked off Johnny Sexton’s pass to offer some brief joy for Italy but further tries from Connors, Sexton, Bundee Aki and Dave Heffernan secured a dominant win.
Garbisi, the 20-year-old fly-half, grabbed a wonderful solo try in the final play to put a dent in Ireland’s score difference, which could come into play next week.
Having easily secured the maximum five points, Ireland will travel to Paris knowing a bonus-point win against France will ensure they become Six Nations champions.
Italy now must gear up for the daunting prospect of England, but are now guaranteed to finish bottom of the table for the fifth year in a row.
Dream debuts for Leinster duo
Although the win comes with the caveat that they were up against an Italy side now winless in 25 Six Nations games, Ireland’s victory and performance vindicated head coach Andy Farrell’s most notable team selection calls.
Leinster’s Keenan and Connors, alongside Caelan Doris on his second cap, picked up where they left off for their province with energetic confidence and expression on show throughout.
Ireland suffered an early setback as Conor Murray was sin-binned for deliberately not releasing in the tackle on his own try-line after Jake Polledri had burst through the midfield – but the hosts quickly settled to assert their dominance in the physical battle.
The first of nine first half turnovers set the platform for Farrell’s side to put pressure on the Italy line, allowing Stander to go over.
From there, the momentum was firmly in Ireland’s favour. It took Connors 21 minutes to win his first international turnover – and eight minutes later, his outstanding counter-ruck provided the penalty from which Ireland went wide, allowing Keenan to step inside and score.
For all he has impressed in the blue of Leinster, Keenan did not cross the tryline in his breakthrough season, a feat he actually achieved three times in his first Ireland outing.
The Dubliner thought he was in for his second after finishing a scintillating break from Jacob Stockdale, but play was pulled back for an earlier Irish infringement in the build-up.
Keenan did not have to wait much longer however, as Doris brilliantly stole the ball under his own posts setting off a rapid Irish counter-attack that saw Keenan ground Murray’s grubber kick to put Ireland 24-3 up at the break.
Title-chasing hosts rack up points in second half
The win moves Ireland to the top of the table on 14 points, one ahead of England and France going into the final round of fixtures.
Among the multitude of potential outcomes next week are that two teams could finish on the same number of points, at which stage the side with the greater points difference would be awarded the title.
For this reason, Ireland attacked the second half with purpose, but contributed to Italy’s mini-revival as Padovani ran on to Sexton’s pass to stroll between the posts.
The try did little to put Ireland off their stride however, and six minutes later Connors drove over at the back of a rolling maul to secure the bonus point.
Sexton made amends for the interception by crashing over for a score of his own before Aki collected a wonderful Peter O’Mahony offload as the hosts cut loose against a tiring Italian defence.
Hooker Heffernan, on his first appearance in three years, drove over in what could have been the final play of the game but Ross Byrne opted to take a quick conversion as Ireland went in search of a final score.
The ploy ultimately backfired as Italy’s debutant Garbisi scythed through a broken field to add the last of the points, in a score that Ireland will hope does not come back to haunt them next week.
Ireland: Stockdale; Conway; Ringrose, Aki Keenan; Sexton, Murray; Healy, Herring, Porter; Beirne, Ryan; Doris, Connors, Stander.
Replacements: Heffernan, E Byrne, Bealham, Dillane, O’Mahony, Gibson-Park, R Byrne, Henshaw.
Italy: Hayward; Padovani, Morisi, Canna, Bellini, Garbisi, Violi; Fischetti, Bigi, Zilocchi, Lazzaroni, Cannone, Negri, Steyn, Polledri.
Replacements: Lucchesi, Ferrari, Ceccarelli, Sisi, Meyer, Mbanda, Braley, Mori.