Johnny Sexton has refused to allow the 48-10 Ireland win over Italy in Rome to be a reason to gloss over what was a disappointing February, Andy Farrell’s side getting beaten in their opening matches by Wales and France. It was the worst start to a championship by the Irish in 23 years as you had to go back to 1998 to find when they had last lost their opening two matches. 

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That sequence was ended at the Stadio Olimpico, Ireland putting Italy to the sword in the first half to lead 27-10 and securing their four-try bonus point just three minutes into the second half. 

However, they lost their way in attack after that and were unable to drive home their dominance against an indisciplined Italian outfit that at one stage coming down the finishing straight was down to 13 players following two yellow cards.   

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Ireland will now complete their championship with games in six March days away to Scotland and at home to England and Sexton is hoping the opening half in Rome, where the Irish led 27-3 until conceding in first-half injury time, is a sign of better things to come.       

“Some brilliant stuff, especially first half,” said Ireland skipper Sexton. “It was very frustrating to concede just before half-time but our intent and our concentration and how clinical we were at times was very pleasing. Stuff that we were taught and did in training finally came out in glimpses today so I’m happy for everyone.

“If you think about the Wales game (a 16-21 defeat), we played with 14 men. We think we would have played like this (against Italy) in that game. We were frustrated after the French game (a 13-15 loss) in that the things we talked about during the week we didn’t deliver on. 

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“That was the frustrating part and we will probably look back with regret in terms of we didn’t play to our potential and we didn’t execute the game plan as best we could. Each game was different and today was an accumulation of what we had coming together a little bit. 

“It doesn’t mean everything is fixed now. We have got to keep improving and it’s a massive test ahead going to Murrayfield, it’s always incredibly tough, and then a six-day turnaround into England. It’s still all to do. If we can get results in our last couple of games it will be an okay championship. It will be one that might have been but we want to finish on a high. That is what we said after the French game.  

“It [Scotland away] will be a step up. To be honest I would just like to enjoy today… we’ll learn some things, what kept them [Italy] in the game in terms of our discipline. We definitely can’t do that over in Murrayfield.” 

Relieved under pressure coach Farrell added: “I’m really proud of the players. They have shown real character over the last couple of weeks. It’s not nice coming after two losses and waiting a couple of weeks to try and put that right. We talked about a test of character and they stayed strong, they stayed very united together and as a group, they all pulled together and showed leaderships in different ways.

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“I thought we earned the right to score some points with the way we approached the game in the first half. I thought the attitude was top class. We approached the game in the right manner and we paid the game and Italy the right respect. We punched away in the first half and the game opened up in the end.

“We know if we don’t get our own intensity right we don’t earn the right to score the tries we have today. That is what we did first and foremost. Does that prepare us well for Murrayfield? Look, we take a break now, we have got a weekend off and will prepare as best we can. 

“We have two weeks leading into this game and the question being asked in midweek was, ‘Are you on a hiding to nothing?’ Well, not for us because we judge our own performance and our performance and attitude was good today.”

Reflecting on injuries to Jordan Larmour, Tadhg Furlong, Ronan Kelleher and Dave Kilcoyne, Farrell said: “We need to assess in the morning [Sunday], especially after the flight home this evening. We’ll see how Jordan will pull up. He had a bit a tightness in his hip flexor so we had Keith (Earls) on early enough because we didn’t want to take a risk there. 

“Tadhg has just gone over his ankle but he seemed to walk off pretty well. Ronan has just got a dead calf so he is good, and Dave Kilcoyne failed his HIA but he is in good spirits in the changing room.”

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