DUBLIN -- Ireland claimed their first Six Nations victory of the year in some style to give head coach Joe Schmidt just the tonic he needed.
There was growing unease among the Irish contingent ahead of Saturday's clash at a sun-washed Aviva Stadium. That the defending, back-to-back champions had not recorded a win in the opening three matches -- a draw against Wales and defeats to France and England -- sparked concern. Injuries played their part, too, with Cian Healy the latest casualty dropping on Friday.
With all hopes of a third successive title gone, should Schmidt have used the opportunity to blood youth? Italy hadn't won in Dublin since 1997 and are notable for collapsing in the latter stages of the championship. The likes of Ulster battering-ram Stuart McCloskey, who performed well against England in the previous round, was an unlucky omission from the matchday squad. Had Schmidt been too conservative with his starting selection?
Nine tries -- the most Ireland have ever scored in the championship -- and a 58-15 victory later, those concerns were all but eradicated.
With 14 line breaks overall -- Ireland had only managed seven in each of their previous three Six Nations matches -- those in green showed signs of returning to their slick, attractive best; the sort of form that saw them finish their Rugby World Cup pool with a 100% record last October. Tries flowed as smoothly as the Guinness at the Aviva.
Barring the opening two minutes, when tighter passing may have seen Gonzalo Garcia dot down to give the Azzurri a shock early lead, this was as comfortable a victory as Schmidt could have asked for.
After Andrew Trimble capitalised on a shocking handling error from Italian wing Leonardo Sarto, Jack McGrath and CJ Stander both crossed to knock the stuffing out of Jacques Brunel's side inside the opening half hour. Jonathan Sexton, who has been the recipient of some rough treatment throughout this championship, showed awesome guile with a neat inside pass for Ireland's third. All of a sudden, the cracks had disappeared and Ireland clicked.
Schmidt's selection was fully vindicated on the stroke of half-time, when Jamie Heaslip finished off the try of the tournament so far. The hosts broke from their own 20-metre line with a swashbuckling move which Heaslip finished in the corner. The sublime combinations from Ireland's backs, the majestic Sexton once again heavily involved, would have put a smile on Kiwi Schmidt's face. You won't see many better tries than this, even from the All Blacks themselves.
The interval provided little respite for the Italians: two minutes after the restart, Jared Payne intercepted a poor second pass from the scrum to dance clear. It summed up an error-strewn performance from Italy, which will no doubt bring calls for a two-tier Six Nations once again, Georgia and Romania waiting in the wings with bated breath.
Their only bright note came in the form of debutant Edoardo Padovani: the fly-half kicked the first Test points of his career and showed astute awareness with a quickly taken penalty to set up their a try for David Odiete, before Leonardo Sarto's late score restored a modicum of pride. Early injuries severely quashed their ambitions and were a bitter pill to take with so many regular first-teamers already sidelined.
However, the visitors' shambolic defending ensured Ireland had the easiest of tasks to regain some much-needed confidence. Heaslip notched another before Sean Cronin -- on to win his 50th cap -- and Ian Madigan displayed fancy footwork to add further gloss, with Fergus McFadden diving over to complete victory in style.
That was what this performance was all about: rediscovering Ireland's potent attack. The returning Simon Zebo was one of five Ireland players to make over 60 metres, with Robbie Henshaw breaking the 70m mark. That kind of rip-roaring pace, dexterity of passing and pulsating breaks were missing in the opening three matches -- how the home crowd clamoured at seeing it all again.
Schmidt even got to blood some more youth with Finlay Bealham -- called up on Friday after Healy's injury -- coming on for an impressive cameo.
Scotland await on final weekend next Saturday. That should prove a sterner test but -- on the back of this win and St Patrick's Day this Thursday -- Irish spirits will be lifted.