Mar 13, 2023
Italy 17 v 29 Wales
Wales halted their losing streak with a well-deserved victory in Rome, providing Warren Gatland with his first victory since returning to the hot seat. Arriving at the Stadio Olimpico as underdogs, Wales produced a streetwise and clinical performance, guided around the field by the excellent Rhys Webb. Scores from Rio Dyer, Liam Williams, Talupe Faletau, and a penalty try sealed the bonus point win as Wales avenged last year’s defeat in Cardiff. It’s been a dismal Six Nations campaign on and off the field for Wales, with the players hampered by issues beyond their control, but they showed immense character to put away a much-fancied Italian side.
It was a deflating afternoon for Italy after all the optimism preluding the game, as they slipped to their 25th consecutive home defeat in the tournament. Italy were as infuriating as they were exciting, repeatedly shooting themselves in the foot. Despite carving out several opportunities, making eleven line breaks to Wales’s four, Italy never looked close to winning, continuously hampered by handling errors. The Azzurri struggled to cope with the effectiveness of Wales’s kicking game, and as enthralling as their attacking ambition is, it proved to be their undoing on several occasions. Two yellow cards didn’t help either, with Lorenzo Cannone and Pierre Bruno spending time in the bin.
Once again, Gatland rang the changes ahead of the game, with six alterations from their team that lost to England as he desperately searched for a winning formula. His selection looked vindicated in the first ten minutes as Wales took control of the game, attacking with much greater vigour and shutting down any space for Italy to build attacks with their impressive line speed. Owen Williams gave them the lead with a penalty, as they started to dominate possession, generating quick ball and looking to attack Italy through the middle. Scrum-half Rhys Webb’s influence was clear, bossing his forwards around with authority on his first Six Nations start since 2017. Webb created the first try, his kick in behind the Italian defence bouncing wickedly, leaving Pierre Bruno floundering and Rio Dyer scampering in under the posts.
Italy looked tentative and nervous, while Wales looked cohesive and purposeful, their line speed denying Italy space on the outside. The Azzurri got on the board thanks to the power of their scrum, Tommaso Allan slotting over a penalty, but the makeshift full-back was partially at fault for Wales’s second try. Seeking to play from deep, Allan’s knock-on presented Wales with an opportunity, which Liam Williams took with a slippery finish, though some of the Italian tackling left a lot to be desired. Allan almost atoned minutes later as Italy started to fizz, but after slicing through the Welsh defence, his pass to the supporting Luke Varney was too high, and Liam Williams’s turnover curtailed the attack.
There were encouraging signs for Italy, though, as their attack started to cause problems, and they almost scored what would have potentially been the try of the championship. Paolo Garbisi sparked the move with a typically incisive break, and a series of wonderful offloads led to Ignacio Brex stretching towards the line, but the Italian centre lost control of the ball. There was a hint of the controversy about Owen Williams’s cover tackle, but it was another instance of Italy failing to convert a line break. Wales made them pay brutally; after kicking themselves deep into the 22, their maul proved too powerful for the Italians, Cannone pulling it down illegally and conceding the penalty try. Cannone’s yellow card made it the double whammy, and only a vital turnover from Giacomo Nicotera stopped Wales from clinching the bonus point a minute later.
Starting the second half 22-3 down, the Azzurri needed a fast start, and Sebastien Negri’s try gave them just that, the industrious flanker holding onto Allan’s clever chip to score. But no sooner had Italy been restored to fourteen men than they were once again left a man down, Bruno sent to the sin bin for handoff on the neck of Wyn Jones. Bruno was perhaps lucky not to be off permanently, though the officials’ communication was excellent throughout the decision-making process. Wales wrestled back the momentum and soon had their fourth try, Webb cleverly spotting space through the ruck and blasting through before feeding Faletau to score.
Italy didn’t give up, but a litany of errors stopped them from building any momentum as they repeatedly coughed up possession. They appeared to have butchered another opportunity when Justin Tipuric stole a line out on the Welsh 5-metre line, but Italy managed to force a scrum, finally taking one of their chances as Bruno’s half break fed Brex to score. With the Welsh starting to tire, Italy started to dominate the ball, but again poor execution continued to let them down. Eye-catching breaks from substitutes Manuel Zuilani and Edoardo Iachizzi ultimately ended with no points, and with the clock ticking, Italy’s desperation started to rise. But the Welsh defence repelled everything the Italians threw at them, holding on for a deserved victory.
Wales’s performance was a dramatic improvement from their recent displays, playing with much greater clarity. Their senior players stood out for them, with Liam Williams and Faletau impressing; while Webb was a revelation, the accuracy of his box kicking allowed Wales to dominate the aerial battle. However, despite the improvement, there are still areas of concern for Wales, with discipline again an issue as they conceded fourteen penalties. Defensively they scrambled excellently, but they were split open several times and missed 38 tackles. Joe Hawkins was busy in attack, and his and Grady’s partnership is undoubtedly exciting, but there’s a hint of defensive vulnerability to it. Wales will need to sharpen up defensively, facing a formidable French side next week, but they are making steps in the right direction. Warren Gatland summed it up perfectly after the game: “There are still a number of things to work on, but I think we deserved to win the game”.
Despite all their sense of progress, the overwhelming feeling will be disappointment for Italy. Heading into the match full of confidence, the Azzurri would have felt the game was there for the taking, but too often on Saturday, they were the architects of their own downfall. However, the harsh criticism is a reflection of their recent improvement and how they’ve raised levels of expectation. Italy’s ambitious and expansive style of rugby has you willing them to do well, but sometimes they need to stem their adventure with some pragmatism. They face a tough ask on Saturday against Scotland, but Italy’s progress has been a heartening element of this year’s championship, even if they end up with the wooden spoon.
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