Ireland survived a scare to beat Italy 26-16 in Rome.
It was another lacklustre display from the reigning champions, who trailed Italy 16-12 at half-time.
Second half tries from Keith Earls and Conor Murray eventually secured both victory and a bonus point, but Ireland’s best form continues to elude them.
Despite some sloppy mistakes in the opening stages, Joe Schmidt’s men started well against an ill-disciplined Italy, who conceded five fouls in the opening 10 minutes.
Quinn Roux crossed the try line to open the scoring in the 11th minute after 19 phases of play, using his strength to power over the line from close range after intense Ireland pressure.
Sexton – making his first Six Nations appearance in Rome since 2011 – converted to make it 7-0, but Conor O’Shea’s Italy wouldn’t go away.
Sean O’Brien conceded two penalties, with Tomasso Allan scoring the second to reduce the deficit to four in the 20th minute.
However, Jacob Stockdale capitalized on some lax Italy defending to score Ireland’s try a minute later, which Sexton failed to convert.
Ireland – who lost Bundee Aki to a head injury – failed to kick on, and Allan nailed another penalty from a Sean Cronin offside five minutes later to keep Italy in the game.
While Ultan Dillane and Dave Kilcoyne impressed on their first starts in the tournament, Cronin – also making his first Six Nations start – endured a torrid game, and was replaced early in the second half.
It was his overhit pass which eventually led to Italy’s first try in the 33rd minute.
Tito Tebaldi pounced on the error, and Italy eventually worked the ball wide to Edoardo Padovani, who duly finished off the counter-attack.
Allan failed to convert, but the home side held all the momentum now, and scored their second try six minutes later.
Luca Morisi burst past Chris Farrell to ground the ball, and despite another missed conversion from Allan, Italy led 16-12 at the break.
Ireland restored their lead in the 50th minute, with Keith Earls showing excellent feet to dance past two Italian defenders and cross the try line.
It was Earls’ 29th Ireland try, the joint third most in the country’s history.
Conor Murray assumed kicking duties, and calmly dispatched the resulting conversion to give Ireland a 19-16 lead.
Murray scored Ireland’s fourth try himself in the 67th minute following a lineout deep in the Italian half, and once again converted to give the away side some breathing space.
Irishman Ian McKinley was introduced off the bench for Italy in the latter stages, but his late chance to score from a penalty was wide of the post.
Ireland held on for a bonus points victory, but concerns remain over the teams form.
Sexton and Murray remain short of their best form, and Ireland’s play has been riddled with complacent errors and a lack of composure thus far in the competition.
“We were too inaccurate,” Schmidt claimed afterwards.
“We’re normally nailed on at the set-piece and we didn’t quite get that set-piece flow ball and then when we did get it, we put passes down.
“It is uncharacteristic for us. We don’t normally give up those balls. We’ll have a look at it and try to reconcile a few things.
“We had an early change with Bundee (Aki) coming off and it was probably the worst swap we could have anticipated. We didn’t really have another 12 and it meant that Keith had to go to 13.
“We feel a little frustrated that we haven’t really gelled and we haven’t kept the same group together for the first 40 minutes when we’d like to get a bit of rhythm.”
A home clash against France awaits next, before a mouth-watering trip to Cardiff to face Grand Slam hopefuls Wales.