Ireland flyhalf role up for grabs
REACTION: He might kick the odd "wounded duck", but Paddy Jackson's 18 points with the boot in a record 63-10 win over Italy could scupper Johnny Sexton's hopes of starting for Ireland against France in a fortnight.
Ireland made amends for the shock of their 22-27 opening round defeat to Scotland in the Six Nations with a commanding, and at times classy, performance in Rome that saw CJ Stander and Craig Gilroy score a hat-trick of tries apiece against an overrun Azzurri.
Ireland are the 2015 champions, but their first win in this year's tournament also came without Sexton, who was left off the squad as a precaution amid his continuing recovery from a calf problem.
Coach Joe Schmidt said the inspirational flyhalf, who has 61 caps and 556 points for Ireland, as well as fellow injury casualties Peter O'Mahoney and Andrew Trimble "will definitely be available for our next game".
But the New Zealander, who led Ireland to an historic first win over the All Blacks last year, seems to be relishing the prospect of some internal competition.
"Hopefully there's a few headaches now in terms of selection," said Schmidt.
There were encouraging performances from the likes of Jackson, Gilroy and replacement hooker Niall Scannell, and he added: "There's a few more guys who got some experience, it's important to keep investing in them."
Claiming their fifth successive win over Italy, the Irish have two weeks to prepare for France, as well as decide who takes the number 10 jersey.
"Last week, when we were so far down, to lead us back into the game, he did really well," Schmidt said of Jackson.
However, the 20-year-old Belfast-born Jackson's wobbly second conversion earned les praise.
Schmidt quipped it was "one of the ugliest ones I've seen. The actual flight of the ball looked like a wounded duck.
"But it was the same two points as the other ones he hit superbly. The wounded duck was a bonus."
For fans, a fully fit and fired-up Sexton could add the X-factor for France in Dublin, and Schmidt conceded: "Johnny has proven that he can come straight back into the side and hit the ground running, and he's done that for us on other occasions.
But he added: "I guess this window has allowed Paddy to stick his hand up and say, 'well, that shouldn't be an automatic choice'."
Ireland's previous highest score against Italy was a 60-13 win at Lansdowne Road in 2000 and their biggest away win over the Azzurri on Saturday was partly inspired by the desire to avoid a second successive sluggish start.
Ireland were comfortably 28-10 up by half-time after a pair of Keith Earls tries and two from Stander's hat-trick, which he completed in the 46th minute.
Gilroy replaced Robbie Henshaw two minutes later and left Italy's battered players falling like skittles more than once, completing his hat-trick at the death, two minutes after Garry Ringrose touched down.
"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," admitted Italy coach Conor O'Shea, who had revived Azzurri hopes considerably after orchestrating a historic 20-18 win over South Africa last November.
O'Shea played 35 times as a full-back for Ireland and said they were a class above the Wales side they lost against last weekend.
"We played against a team that, in every department, is better than us. Ireland are 100% better than the Welsh team we played."
Ireland would probably agree but before committing to France as of Wednesday, the rest of their weekend focus was elsewhere.
"I'm just going to enjoy the night," said No8 Jamie Heaslip after playing down talk of Ireland reviving their championship bid.
"There's been a lot of sacrifices made by the players and there's a lot of friends, family, the lads' wives and partners who've come to Rome on Valentines weekend.
"We're going to enjoy the time tonight."
Heaslip, stepping in for captain Rory Best after the influential hooker was sidelined with a stomach bug, said their team-led effort helped soothe the pain lingering from Murrayfield.
"We went back to [being] ourselves," said Heaslip.