ROME (AFP) - A hat-trick of tries for CJ Stander and Craig Gilroy, and nine conversions from fly-half Paddy Jackson, relaunched Ireland's Six Nations title hopes on Saturday (Feb 11) with a record 63-10 win over Italy in Rome.
Ireland, the 2015 champions, arrived in the Eternal City looking to make amends for a 27-22 defeat at Murrayfield when Scotland scored three tries in the opening half hour.
And Joe Schmidt's men left the "Colosseum" of the Stadio Olimpico with no doubts as to their tournament credentials.
Depite their loss to Scotland, New Zealander Schmidt was buoyed by a win that sets the Irish up well for France next week: "We didn't release the pressure valve." Ireland's previous highest score against Italy was a 60-13 win at Lansdowne Road in 2000. This was their highest against Italy away from home.
"I thought we were a lot more clinical than usual," said Ireland No 8 Jamie Heaslip, standing in as captain after hooker Rory Best was sidelined by a stomach bug.
"We definitely held on to the ball better through the phases." Although Italy made amends for a 33-7 defeat to Wales with far better discipline, Conor O'Shea's men were dominated for long periods and, worryingly, saw their defence collapse in a completely one-sided second half.
O'Shea, who played 35 times for Ireland as a full-back, had asked for discipline to improve after shipping 15 penalties to Wales.
But in doing so, Italy's game elsewhere suffered.
"In the first 20 minutes we took a battering," said O'Shea. "We talked about Ireland's ability to hold the ball through the phases, and the first 20 minutes took a physical and mental toll on us.
"We played against a team that, in every department, is better than us. It was a tough day.
"But we will never hang our heads. We have to get ready in one week's time and be focused for England at Twickenham." After seeing winger Angelo Esposito's timely intervention knock the ball from Simon Zebo's hands as he was about to touch down on 11 minutes, Ireland had their opener a minute later when Keith Earls was given acres of space on the right flank.
The first of Jackson's conversions gave Ireland a 7-0 lead on 14 minutes.
Italy reduced arrears quickly thanks to Carlo Canna's penalty but Italy's defence caved in when Stander collected Zebo's skip pass to touch down past the left corner flag.
Jackson's conversion bobbled over for a 14-3 lead, "one of the ugliest I've ever seen", said Schmidt, who said it resembled "a wounded duck".
Handling errors and a tight Irish defence intent on making amends for their poor start to Scotland ended Italian hopes of a quick fightback, and their defence suffered, too.
Fast Irish hands moved the ball out to the right channel, where Earls was allowed to run over unhindered, Jackson converting for a 21-3 lead.
Italy bounced back thanks to a penalty try, awarded after Ireland collapsed the line-out drive, losing Donnacha Ryan to a yellow card in the process.
But minutes later Stander touched over for his second try to secure a fourth try bonus point. Jackson converted for a 28-10 first-half lead that left Italy in disarray.
Despite collecting a bonus point, Schmidt was dismissive.
"For us it's about trying to get the right performance and the right results over the tournament," he said.
Ryan returned on 44 minutes and two minutes later Stander collected Conor Murray's offload from a ruck outside the 22 to skip round a series of tackles and seal his hat-trick, Jackson kicking his fifth conversion for a 35-10 lead.
Schmidt made a series of changes for the final quarter and the fresh legs were too much for Italy, Gilroy touching over the first of his hat-trick on 68 minutes after skipping inside his marker outside the 22 and running home.
Inspired, Garry Ringrose pulled off a similar move four minutes later, with Gilroy completing his hat-trick with a brace of tries in the final minutes.