DUNEDIN, New Zealand - Ireland withstood a ferocious performance by Italy's forwards Sunday to advance to the Rugby World Cup quarterfinals with a 36-6 win in the tournament's last pool match.
Brian O'Driscoll rounded off a flowing backline move seven minutes after halftime for a converted try that put Ireland 19-6 ahead and Keith Earls touched down twice in the corner as Italy's hopes of a first quarterfinal evaporated.
Ronan O'Gara experienced none of the kicking problems that afflicted players in the other three pool matches under the roof of Dunedin's Otago Stadium, succeeding with six of his seven place kicks at goal and hitting the post with the other.
Otago Stadium was awash with green as the overwhelming majority of the 28,027 fans inside celebrated Ireland securing top spot in Pool C ahead of Tri-Nations champion Australia and a quarterfinal against northern hemisphere rival Wales in Wellington on Saturday.
"The games between us have been incredibly close over the last 7 or 8 years," captain O'Driscoll said. "Certainly in my career it's been to-ing and fro-ing and it's not mattered where the games have been. We've won in Cardiff and they've won in Dublin.
"I would envisage another close game."
Italy coach Nick Mallett spoke before the game of how his side had more to offer than just forward power, but his players showed little else as they chased the big win they needed and their passion spilled over at times into foul play.
Leonardo Ghiraldini was fortunate referee Jonathan Kaplan missed an apparent eye gouge on prop Cian Healy and Mauro Bergamasco was involved in a handful of confrontations before swing a punch at Healy, forcing Kaplan to reverse a penalty that would have given Italy a shot at goal for 9-9 at halftime.
Instead, Ireland went into the interval 9-6 up, Kaplan took the captains aside in the tunnel to order an improvement in discipline, and O'Gara added another three points before the tries flowed.
O'Gara and Gordon D'Arcy made good ground following a lineout and Tommy Bowe raced through before slipping an inside pass to O'Driscoll, who touched down just to the left of the posts for his 45th international try.
"The first half was pretty nip and tuck, but it always is in Ireland-Italy matches," Kidney said. "It's a case of taking the breaks when they come your way and Tommy got a bit of an opening and we finished it well. That gave us a bit of daylight."
Earls then collected a pass from Jamie Heaslip to turn and go over in the left corner, O'Gara drilling the conversion from just inside the touchline to put Ireland three scores clear at 26-6 with more than 25 minutes remaining.
Bowe looked to have scored a late breakaway try after hacking the ball downfield past the tiring Italian defence but he got neither the score nor a penalty try despite having been hauled back while attempting to touch down.
It didn't matter. Andrew Trimble broke from the quarterline restart and drew his man in before popping a gentle pass into the arms of the onrushing Earls, who raced in again.
With O'Gara having been withdrawn to an ovation for his 16-point haul, Jonathan Sexton added a sideline conversion to his earlier penalty to complete the scoring with the last kick of the match.
Mirco Bergamasco never got a chance to add to his two first-half penalties and, with his brother replaced shortly into the second half and Martin Castrogiovanni off with what looked to be a right hamstring injury, Italy could not sustain its efforts up front.
Italy's most experienced starting lineup ever with a total 744 caps competed well in the scrum and mauled strongly in the first half but had little to offer in the loose, with players failing to spot overlaps and gaps when they did occur.
Mallett won't get the chance to put those failings right. The former South Africa coach has led Italy for the last time, with Jacques Brunel set to take over before the start of the Six Nations in February.
"Obviously, I'm unhappy about the way it finished. I didn't expect (the margin) to be as heavy as it was," Mallett said.
Ireland lost hooker Rory Best to injury but was able to take off lock Paul O'Connell for the final quarter to preserve him for the quarterfinals. O'Gara also trotted off to be replaced by Sexton for the last 14 minutes, with only the penalty onto the post and a first-half drop goal attempt that faded past the left post marring his kicking performance.
With Kidney looking ahead, Healy, Conor Murray, Stephen Ferris and O'Driscoll also went off late on. Man-of-the-match Sean O'Brien stayed on until the end.
"I would imagine it'll be pretty much like in the Six Nations," Ireland coach Declan Kidney said. "Space will be cut down because we're reasonably familiar with each other's styles."