Ireland beat spirited Italy to keep Six Nations Grand Slam bid alive

Ireland's hunt for a Six Nations Grand Slam is on after the world's top-ranked team overcame Italy 34-20 in an entertaining encounter in Rome on Saturday.

Mack Hansen scored two tries with James Ryan, Hugo Kennan and Bundee Aki also dotting down to ensure that the Irish have taken 15 points from their three matches in this year's tournament.

Ross Byrne, who played in place of captain Johnny Sexton, kicked 14 points in a win which for long spells looked far from guaranteed.

Andy Farrell's side are five points clear at the top of the Six Nations standings ahead of closest rivals Scotland's showdown against France at the Stade de France on Sunday.

Italy stay on a single point in the table, one in front of troubled Wales who host England later on Saturday.

Azzurri coach Kieran Crowley and the country's rugby federation said before the tournament that they were targeting two wins this year but they now have their work cut out if they want to reach that objective.

Italy host Wales, beaten by the Azzurri at the end of last year's Six Nations, in a fortnight's time before travelling to Murrayfield to take on Scotland a week later as they try to avoid yet another wooden spoon.

Crowley's young team caused Ireland problems with their own expansive style of rugby and scored tries through Stephen Varney and Pierre Bruno, with the returning fly-half Paolo Garbisi kicking 10 points.

- Ireland continue charge -

Ireland made six changes from the team which beat France two weeks ago and had to battle their way past the Italians, but looked like they were going to run away with the match early on as James Lowe just failed to dot down under pressure from Ange Capuozzo.

Seconds later Lowe was involved again as he charged down the left flank and unloaded to James Ryan who ran through for an easy, but not converted score.

However Italy recovered from the early blow and after a long spell of pressure swept the ball across to the right flank and into the hands of Nicolo Cannone, who burst through the Irish defence and fell just short of the try line.

Varney then snatched the ball up and crossed to level the scores in the seventh minute, before Garbisi slotted the conversion.

Hugo Keenan deflated the enthusiastic home crowd just six minutes later, re-establishing Ireland's lead with a converted try under the posts after the full-back slipped two desperate tackles following great play from Byrne and Aki.

Garbisi pulled Italy to within three points with a penalty but every time Ireland attacked they looked like they might score, and it was more exceptional ball handling which led to the away side's third try.

Garbisi gave the ball away sloppily towards his own 22 and from there it was lightning hands which led to Lowe again charging down the left before a quick no-look pass allowed Aki to touch down in the corner.

And Hansen made sure Ireland would pick up a bonus point with five minutes left of the first half when he dived into the corner after what seemed like a lifetime of Ireland pressure on Italy's try line.

Bruno made the half-time score a respectable 24-17 in favour of the Irish when he intercepted a sloppy Aki pass and charged most of the field to score under the posts for a score converted by Garbisi.

Montpellier fly-half Garbisi then kicked Italy to within four points of Ireland with a 56th-minute penalty and the hosts avoided the deficit being extended two minutes later when Aki was adjudged to have lost possession before dotting down.

However Byrne then slotted a penalty of his own before Hansen scored his second try of the match with nine minutes remaining when he slipped away from the defensive line to cross under the posts and guarantee Ireland the win.