World Cup - Ireland set up Wales quarter-final
Ireland weathered a stiff test in their decisive clash with Italy before cutting loose in the second half for an eventually dominant 36-6 victory that sent them into the World Cup quarter-finals as group winners for the first time.
The winner-takes-all Pool C match was a desperately tight forward battle in the first half as Ireland edged a 9-6 lead but they took command after the break as their high-class backline eventually carved try-scoring openings.
Captain Brian O'Driscoll finished off the first chance after 48 minutes and winger Keith Earls added a second four minutes later before capping off a stirring second half display with his second try at the death.
Ireland won all four pool games for a first time, coming after they lost all four of their warm-up tests, setting up a Wellington quarter-final against Wales, who secured second place in Pool D earlier on Sunday when they beat Fiji 66-0.
With the prize of a semi-final against a stuttering England or underperforming France dangling tantalisingly, Ireland, who have never before gone beyond the last eight, have a wonderful chance to go all the way to the final.
"Delighted with the win," said O'Driscoll, whose on-pitch interview was almost drowned out by the roaring Irish fans.
"We knew we needed it and I'm glad we were able to deliver in that second half, ably helped by the best crowd we've played in front of so far.
"We owe them a huge debt of gratitude. We knew we were going to have to be patient. Against any team, you have to grind them down and go through the phases. We were good and patient and took our scores clinically."
Italy's dreams of a first appearance in the quarters fell at the final hurdle for the third successive tournament as Sunday's setback followed an agonisingly 18-16 loss to Scotland in 2007 and defeat by Wales in 2003.
It was a disappointing exit for coach Nick Mallett, who, after four years in charge, is being replaced by Frenchman Jacques Brunel after the tournament.
"I don't have any words in this moment," said an emotional Italian skipper Sergio Parisse.
"It's difficult to explain how I feel. I want to thank my team mates for all the work we have been doing but today we played really badly.
"Compliments to Ireland because they showed really good rugby."
There was a wonderful atmosphere at the indoor Otago Stadium, which was a virtual sea of green for the final game of the World Cup's pool stage.
The huge prize at stake helped make for a tight confrontation though and, with little between the sides and every point vital, the mounting tension grew palpable.
The two power packs cancelled each other out in a series of grabbing scrums and thunderous breakdown collisions.
Confrontations were breaking out all over the pitch and Italy hooker Leonardo Ghiraldini may get a call from the citing commissioner after TV pictures appeared to show him gouging Cian Healy's eyes, an action that sent the Irish prop into a fury of flailing fists.
Ireland edged the first 40 minutes as Ronan O'Gara landed three of his four penalty attempts to Mirco Bergamasco's two from three, but the nearest either side came to a try was when Irish wing Tommy Bowe broke through to touch down under the posts but was called back for a forward pass.
Irish scrumhalf Conor Murray, in only his second Test start, looked remarkably composed amid the cauldron, while flanker Sean O'Brien had another immense game.
Italy lost key prop Martin Castrogiovanni after half an hour and brought on Riccardo Bocchino at fly-half for the second period but they were unable to gain a foothold and within 12 minutes of the restart, the match was effectively over.
O'Gara stretched the lead to 12-6 with his fourth penalty before Bowe carved through the Italian defence with a determined run and switched the ball nicely inside for evergreen O'Driscoll to score his 45th try in his 116th appearance for his country.
Four minutes later it was Gordon D'Arcy's run that scattered the Italian defence and after Ireland patiently moved the ball back across the line, winger Earls marked his 24th birthday with the second try.
O'Gara converted both scores and Earls completed Ireland's 16th successive victory over Italy and potentially their most important with his second try in the final minute.
7’ O’Gara penalty: Ireland 3-0
11’ Bergamasco penalty: 3-3 Italy
18’ O’Gara penalty: Ireland 6-3
21’ Bergamasco penalty: 6-6 Italy
35’ O’Gara penalty: Ireland 9-6
44’ O’Gara penalty: Ireland 12-6
47’ O’Driscoll try: Ireland 17-6
49’ O’ Gara conversion: Ireland 19-6
52’ Earls try: Ireland 24-6
53’ O’Gara conversion: Ireland 26-6
70’ Sexton conversion: Ireland 29-6
80’ Earls try: Ireland 34-6
80+1’ Sexton conversion: Ireland 36-6