Rugby World Cup: Ireland show their grit to edge over the line
Schmidt's men book quarter spot with tight win over Italy
Having enjoyed two relative cakewalks to start their World Cup campaign, Ireland came out on top of an arm-wrestle with Italy at the Olympic Stadium yesterday afternoon.
They finished the game with 14 men on the field and, instead of the comfortable processions towards the final whistles against Canada and Romania, Ireland fans were left with pulses racing and fingernails bitten before minds were eventually allowed to turn towards a pool-defining clash with France in Cardiff on Sunday.
The brightest of sparks was provided by Ulster's Iain Henderson, man of the match after a physical performance in all facets of the game, and it was he and his tight-five colleagues who saw Ireland over the line.
In the pre-match build-up, Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt said that he would be delighted with a two-point win but one suspects he was less than thrilled with aspects of his team's showing after watching them book their spot in the quarter-finals with just a seven-point buffer.
The only try of the game came from Keith Earls and in the second-half Josh Furno seemed set to score before being bundled into touch by a brilliant covering tackle from Peter O'Mahony.
Prior to the game, Ireland were confident of securing another win, even after injury caused disruption to their backline plans.
While the likes of Martin Moore, Rhys Ruddock and Tommy O'Donnell were ruled out before the tournament, save for Robbie Henshaw's hamstring strain, Ireland have lived a charmed life when it comes to injuries at this World Cup but the sight of Jared Payne pitchside with a moonboot over his bruised foot did not make pleasant viewing while Rob Kearney sat out as a precaution after last week's strained glute.
The Italians, though, have been considerably less fortunate and while the concerns surrounding Sergio Parisse's calf dominated the week, they had already lost a pair of expected backline starters, Luca Morisi and Andrea Masi, before centre Gonzalo Garcia lasted just three minutes and was replaced by Tommaso Benvenuti.
Despite the blow, Italy began the game well but Sexton punished an offside with the first penalty after seven minutes.
The first scrum brought a roar of anticipation, Italian forwards eagerly awaiting an opportunity to show their worth, and the lengthy exchange thrilled purists of the art.
When the ball was eventually moved wide, danger was momentarily averted thanks to a strong tackle from Tommy Bowe but Italy moved through the phases and a Parisse carry earned a penalty when Jamie Heaslip played the ball on the deck.
Tommasso Allan made no mistake from the tee and levelled the scores.
Henderson, defending with a typical display of brute strength, won a turnover when holding up the Italian captain but Ireland could not take full advantage.
The breakthrough was short in coming though when O'Mahony stole the line-out dart of Jacques Brunel's second choice hooker Andrea Manici.
Ireland moved the ball quickly, through Henderson and Heaslip, and Henshaw's lovely line was found by Sexton.
Connacht centre Henshaw, making his tournament bow, offloaded to Earls and the Munsterman became Ireland's all-time leading try-scorer at the World Cup.
Italy responded with another penalty, Irish captain Paul O'Connell whistled for not rolling away, and things almost got better for the underdogs shortly after.
With Sean O'Brien called for not releasing, the Azurri opted for the corner but Manici overthrew the tail and the ball was gathered by the waiting Conor Murray.
Sexton had a penalty bounce back off the upright when Dave Kearney was ceremoniously upended and a further chance for points before the half was spurned when, with Quintin Geldenhuys having already done something of a number on an Ireland lineout, a maul was splintered and Murray knocked on when Rory Best went to ground.
Italy replaced hooker Manici at the break, Davide Giazzon coming on in his place, but their line-out didn't improve and the first effort out of touch in the second-half produced another turnover.
O'Mahony spared Ireland's nerves with his tackle on Furno 10 minutes into the half but Italy soon drew within a solitary point.
Allan kicked speculatively for Giovanbattista Venditti and the winger almost gathered but, when called back for the penalty, the out-half knocked over his third of the day.
Two Sexton efforts off the tee, first when Italy were caught off their feet and then for not rolling away four minutes later, provided some breathing room just as the hour approached but it was still to be a nervy final quarter.
O'Mahony's transgression, hitting the ruck without his arms, brought the man disadvantage but, even though Sexton missed his second of the day, the Italians could not close the gap despite their best efforts.
By some distance the best Italy have produced at this tournament, no coincidence given the return of their stand-out captain, there can now be no concerns that Ireland have not been given a proper test before meeting Philippe Saint-Andre's side.