Rome - Ireland coach Joe Schmidt has warned the defending Six Nations champions they will have to up their game if they are to impress against France next week before the arguably tougher assignment of facing co-favourites England.
Ireland took the first step towards defending their crown with a 26-3 win over long-suffering Italy with Conor Murray and Tommy O'Donnell scoring second-half tries and fly-half Ian Keatley added 14 points with the boot.
Yet it was a largely disjointed performance from both sides at the Stadio Olimpico until Murray touched over just after the hour when the hosts were reduced to 14 men following Leonardo Ghiraldini's trip to the sin bin.
Having watched England's stirring second-half fightback to claim a 21-16 win over Wales on Friday, Schmidt said he was impressed with how both sides went about their business at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff.
But the New Zealander believes England "have set the benchmark" for this year's tournament, and already given his side a fair idea of what might be required if they are to emerge victorious in Dublin in three weeks' time.
"The benchmark was set by England last night in that second half... England just kept the pressure right on them," Schmidt said.
"The physical nature of that battle... it certainly means we've got a lot to do. We'll have to roll our sleeves up early on next week and hopefully put together a sufficiently improved performance to be competitive against France."
He added: "For us, we certainly need to up our game. I do think that part of it was the pressure Italy put on us, but at the same time I know we can do better than that, and we're going to have to."
Ireland were shorn of several regulars who helped them secure last year's title as they travelled to the Italian capital intent on making amends for their 22-15 defeat to the Italians two years ago.
But any worries Schmidt had about his young side were dispelled just after the hour mark when Murray, then O'Donnell -- a late replacement for Sean O'Brien after he suffered a twinge to his hamstring in the warm-up -- touched down to put the match beyond the reach of the hosts 14 minutes from the final whistle.
Schmidt admitted O'Brien's absence had partly led to a "disjointed" first-half but he was quick to praise the new faces in his side, in particular fly-half Keatley, centre Robbie Henshaw and flanker Jordi Murphy.
"It's the first small step for them. They get a little bit of confidence from having played at the level, played in the pressure cooker that is the Six Nations championship," added Schmidt.
Italy captain Sergio Parisse had pledged the Azzurri would "spit blood" in a bid to hand the Irish their second consecutive Stadio Olimpico defeat, but the challenge from the hosts fell resoundingly flat.
The Italians looked clumsy from the outset and were soon left focusing all their efforts on defence as Ireland steadily worked their way towards a more creative, attacking game in the second half having taken a 9-3 lead at the break.
By the end, the statistics said it all: Italy had only 30% possession and while they performed well in the scrums, they were poor at the line-out.
Coach Jacques Brunel repeated his usual lament about the "lack of balance in attack and defence" but the Frenchman must be worried about Italy's lack of progress in what is a World Cup year.
"We didn't have a lot of possession compared to Ireland, 30% for us and then we lost a player... it was impossible for us to try and win a game with this lack of balance between attack and defence," said Brunel.
"We weren't efficient enough, we gave away too many balls and certainly our main issue was our line out. Our scrum was at least on a par with or even better than Ireland's."
Italy last season faced their first whitewash in the tournament since 2009 and collected their 10th wooden spoon in 15 years competing in the Six Nations.
The Azzurri face England at Twickenham in a week's time and Parisse said: "Obviously for next week we have to make big improvements in our ball possession and line-outs if we are going to be competitive at Twickenham
Ireland have now won eight consecutive games for the first time in six years.
But ahead of facing France next week, captain Paul O'Connell said there is still room for improvement.
"There's a whole load of areas we can iprove on. A few, very simple things that are easily corrected. It would be great if we could eradicate that for next week against the French," he said.