Ireland advanced into the quarter-finals of the World Cup with a crushing 36-6 victory over Italy in their winner-takes-all clash at the Otago Stadium here Sunday.
Pool C winners Ireland will now face old rivals Wales in the knockout phase in Wellington on Saturday with Italy, in what was coach Nick Mallett's last game in charge, left searching for a first World Cup quarter-final appearance.
The win saw Ireland atone for their failure to reach the last eight in France four years ago and meant they capitalised on their shock 15-6 win over Australia earlier in the pool -- a result that would have gone to waste had Italy won this match.
Ireland were 12-6 up early in the second half when, within a matter of minutes, they put the result of what some had thought would be a close game beyond doubt with two tries -- a reward for besting Italy up front and having far more threatening backs.
Brian O'Driscoll, the Ireland captain, crossed in the 47th minute after taking a pass from Tommy Bowe who, coming across from right wing to left, sliced through the Italian defence before delivering a well-timed inside pass to the centre.
And four minutes later left wing Keith Earls, 24 on Sunday, marked his birthday by finishing a sweeping move with a try in the far corner after good work by centre Gordon D'Arcy and blindside flanker Stephen Ferris.
Ronan O'Gara, who landed six out of seven placekicks for a match haul of 16 points before being replaced by rival fly-half Jonathan Sexton, a less reliable goalkicker, duly landed the conversion.
Ireland were now 26-6 in front and well on their way to a 16th successive Test win over Italy, whom they only beat 13-11 in this season's Six Nations thanks to O'Gara's late drop-goal in Rome in February.
Sexton added a penalty but by then the damage, led by lock Paul O'Connell in a fine Irish pack effort, had been done.
Bowe just failed, according to the video referee to touch down by the Italy posts in the final minute after the ball was hacked down field, as a brawl broke out near the Irish line.
But there was still time for Earls to set the seal on Ireland's victory with his second try, converted by Sexton, after the Irish ran the ball back the 22 drop-out.
Ireland dominated territory in the early stages while their pack kept pace with Italy's much vaunted scrum, which former Springbok boss Mallett had said was key to the Azzurri's hopes of victory.
But at half-time they were only 9-6 in front after a forward-dominated first half saw O'Gara kick three penalties to Mirco Bergamasco's two.
The Irish thought they had the game's first try when impressive openside flanker Sean O'Brien released Bowe in the 31st minute.
But South African referee Jonathan Kaplan disallowed the score for a forward pass to the audible disappointment of the massed ranks of Ireland fans in a near capacity 28,027 crowd at the indoor arena.
When O'Gara made it 9-6 five minutes before the interval, Ireland also had the satisfaction of seeing powerhouse prop Martin Castrogiovanni, the anchorman of Italy's scrum, limp off the field and out of the match.
IRELAND 36 (Keith Earls 2, Brian O’Driscoll tries Ronan O’Gara 2, Jonny Sexton cons O’Gara 4, Sexton pens) bt ITALY 6 (Mirco Bergamasco 2 pens) at Forsyth Barr Stadium. Referee: Jonathan Kaplan. Crowd: 28,027.