Wales 23, Italy 15
Good teams have the ability to win ugly. And the Welsh performance against Italy on the opening day of their much heralded push for an historic hat-trick of RBS 6 Nations titles was as unconvincing as it was unsightly.
Pre-match predictions were for an avalanche of points from the champions of 2012 and 2013 on home soil and, when the Italian debutant Angelo Esposito gifted the predatory Alex Cuthbert a try after a mere three minutes, it looked as though the floodgates were going to open.
The Italians arrived with a record-breaking pack of forwards – Sergio Parisse’s eight boasted 490 caps – and they battled and grappled in much the same way as they had on the opening day a year earlier when they beat France in Rome. But it was the resolve of a makeshift back line that had three players promoted from last year’s U20 championship who really stole the show.
The script seemed set for Wales to run through, round and all-over the novice Italian three-quarters, but it never happened that way. One thrust from Jamie Roberts was all that cut the line and that was enough to send Scott Williams racing to the line for Wales’ second try to give them a 17-3 interval lead.
But there was no purr in the Welsh back line performance, no strut in the stride of the champions as requested by head coach Warren Gatland. In truth, it was a performance that was just good enough to pip Italy, that won’t have made Ireland worry or wonder and which is bound to lead to a lot of soul-searching in the Welsh camp this week.
But then isn’t that always the way of the Welsh at the start of their 6 Nations campaigns? Three of their last four championships had started with a defeat and the first 40 minutes against Ireland in Cardiff last season were their worst of the season.
The hope that Gatland, and the 66,974 fans who turned up at the Millennium Stadium, now have is that Wales will improve as they go through the championship.
Last season they retained their title with four successive wins, three of them on the road, after their Irish debacle and ended on the highest of highs with the 30-3 demolition of England in Cardiff.
Will a week be long enough to attend to some of the deficiencies against Italy? It will have to be! Everyone knows what is waiting for them in Dublin and a repeat of their 2012 victory at the Aviva would mark this Welsh team out as one of the truly great sides of the modern game.
With five successive championship wins in a row they are now one short of France’s record of six and if they can win the first of their two away matches that title hat-trick will most definitely be on.
Gatland will be able to consider the British & Irish Lions skipper Sam Warburton for his starting line-up after he came through the last 15 minutes, while Gethin Jenkins should be fit to slot back into the front row and Jonathan Davies returned for the Scarlets on Saturday night without any ill effects.
It means the Welsh matchday 23 should be stronger. But will it be good enough to snuff out the fire of the Irish forwards and keep the Brian O’Driscoll-inspired back line at bay? The new scrummaging laws have caused Adam Jones a few problems this season and the once dominant Welsh front five aren’t having it all their own way these days.
Whichever team gets the edge there will go on to win the game.
The Italians forced the Welsh scrum to concede three penalties and a free kick, although the rather whistle happy John Lacey was even harsher on the Italian scrum in a game of 25 penalties.
Gatland has a big decision to make in his back row selection with his four Lions now fit. Does he revert to the England combination, with Warburton and Justin Tipuric on the flanks, or does he retain the defensive qualities of Dan Lydiate.
That is a happy problem for him. The biggest decision, as ever with Welsh coaches, is who to pick at No 10. Rhys Priestland didn’t make the most of his big opportunity against Italy and it would be no surprise if Wales reverted back to Dan Biggar on Saturday. After all, he knows how to beat the Leinster system! Scrum half Mike Phillips was another slow starter and he should undoubtedly be the man on who the Irish focus most of their attention.
Rattle him and the Welsh game plan begins to unravel. No doubt Conor Murray will be relishing his potential Lions reunion with Phillips.
If the real Welsh team stands tall in Dublin this weekend there is every chance they will win. But if they fail to improve on their rather messy Italian job then O’Driscoll and the Irish fans will be able to smile the broadest of victory smiles.
Scorers: Wales: Tries: A Cuthbert, S Williams; Cons: L Halfpenny 2; Pens: L Halfpenny 3. Italy: Tries: M Campagnaro 2; Con: T Allan; Pen: T Allan.
WALES: L Halfpenny, A Cuthbert, S. Williams, J Roberts, G North, R Priestland, M. Phillips, P James, R Hibbard, A. Jones, L Charteris, AW Jones, D Lydiate, J Tipuric, T Faletau.
Replacements: R Webb for M. Phillips (68), K Owens for Hibbard (68), R Jones for A. Jones (65), A Coombs for Charteris (58), S Warburton for Lydiate (65).
ITALY: L McLean, A Esposito, M Campagnaro, A Sgarbi, L Sarto, T Allan, E Gori, M Rizzo, L Ghiraldini, M Castrogiovanni, Q Geldenhuys, M Bortolami, A Zanni, M. Bergamasco, S Parisse.
Replacements: T Iannone for Sarto (74), TW Botes for Gori (66), A De Marchi for Rizzo (56), D Giazzon for Ghiraldini (58), L Cittadini for Castrogiovanni (69), J Furno for Bortolami (69), F Minto for M. Bergamasco (58).
Referee: John Lacey (Ireland).
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