Wales punctuated their bonkers Six Nations campaign with a highly sensible 33-10 victory over Italy in Cardiff on Saturday.
Wales punctuated their bonkers Six Nations campaign with a highly sensible 33-10 victory over Italy at the Millennium Stadium on Saturday.
A bright start from the visitors was stamped out by the boot of Stephen Jones before second-half tries from James Hook (two) and Shane Williams (who else?) sealed the deal.
Despite their dash from the blocks and some heroic defence, the Azzurri were strangely subdued, able only to draw shrill blasts from the whistle of referee Wayne Barnes. They betrayed their lack of ideas by opting for a shot at goal when 26-0 down.
Setting Italian failings to one side, this was a much improved performance from the Welsh.
But they still didn't mange to shake the sleep from their eyes until half-time. Once again they failed to score a try in the opening period.
Wales will be allowed to celebrate tonight – Andy Powell might even be invited – but there are now far more challenging opponents on the horizon, with world champions South Africa awaiting Wales in early June, followed by two away Tests against New Zealand.
But we digress – back to the action in Cardiff…
Italy, despite a late try from lively full-back Luke McLean, were undone in the second period as Wales turned their 12-0 interval advantage into a runaway win.
Wing Mirco Bergamasco slotted a conversion and penalty for the Azzurri, yet they never threatened to record just a second victory in 28 Six Nations away games.
Gatland promised to put his players through pain during the build-up, so angered was he by their tame 27-12 loss against Ireland last weekend, and he saw a response after making five changes.
Wing Tom Prydie's startling promotion to senior duty was the headline selection by Gatland, but he also recalled three fit-again British and Irish Lions in skipper Ryan Jones, scrum-half Mike Phillips and prop Gethin Jenkins.
Prydie, Wales' youngest international player of all-time at 18 years and 25 years, coped well with the pressure, and it was an afternoon when the home side delivered, even though they made subduing a limited Italian outfit hard work at times.
Sam Warburton – Martyn Williams' understudy at openside flanker – gained his first Six Nations start, but Italy coach Nick Mallett lost three injured players less than 48 hours before kick-off in centre Andrea Masi, lock Carlo Del Fava and flanker Paul Derbyshire.
The stadium roof remained open at Mallett's request, but early morning rain relented and conditions were dry, seemingly suiting Wales' renowned running game.
And Prydie was rapidly into the action, completing a crunching tackle on Gonzalo Canale that forced the Italy centre off nursing a rib injury, before testing McLean through a well-placed chip and chase.
Jones then opened Wales' account with an angled penalty, but Italy were unlucky not to draw level when Bergamasco's 40-metre opener bounced back off the post.
Wales, who saw Ian Gough replace injured lock Bradley Davies after 15 minutes, began to exert a degree of territorial dominance, yet were frustrated by Italy securing turnover possession twice in quick succession and clearing any danger.
A second Jones penalty doubled the lead just before Italy lost a second injured player – scrum-half Pablo Canavosio.
Despite the setbacks though, the visitors defended solidly, albeit with some luck.
Wales looked to have finally breached the Azzurri defence 12 minutes before half-time when Shane Williams sent full-back Lee Byrne over, but referee Barnes took play back for a penalty he had already awarded the home side.
Italy began to infringe at regular intervals, and Jones completed his penalty hat-trick for a nine-point advantage as Wales reached for the accelerator.
Hook was denied by an unkind bounce after he kicked beyond Italy's last line of defence, and although Jones landed another three-pointer, Wales trooped off unfulfilled.
Despite leading 12-0, it meant that for the fifth successive Six Nations game this season they had failed to register a first-half try.
Wales continued to toil away in pursuit of an elusive touchdown, and both Williams and Hook went close as cracks began opening in Italy's defence.
It was a case of being patient, and with Phillips rifling substantial amounts of possession out to his fellow backs, there seemed little chance Italy could cling on to just a 12-point deficit.
And so it proved when quick ball found its way to Hook, and he dived over between two Italian defenders for a try that Jones converted.
Wales had gone two hours and 11 minutes of this season's tournament without posting a try, but things looked bleak for Italy as their resilience looked to have run its course.
And when flanker Mauro Bergamasco was sin-binned following a technical offence, Wales made them pay immediately when Hook ghosted through for his second try in three minutes.
Stephen Jones added the conversion, leaving Italy facing a damage-limitation exercise as the final quarter approached.
The Azzurri bravely stuck to their guns, but they had no answer when Phillips surged up-field and the supporting Shane Williams claimed his 51st try for Wales.
Stephen Jones booted the extras, and Gatland used up all seven of his substitutes with 10 minutes still remaining before McLean's smart consolation score at least gave the vociferous Italian fans something to shout about.
Man of the match: There was some fine collective defence from the Italians and some bright moments from Alessandro Zanni. But that pretty much sums up the visitors' day. Sam Warburton impressed for the locals, as Shane Williams was his usual effervescent self. But our award goes to Stephen Jones. The veteran pivot enjoyed his reunion with Mike Phillips, with James Hook being the main beneficiary of the happy marriage of minds.
Moment of the match: Probably the opening try – it rang out like an alarm clock around the Millennium Stadium, rousing the Welsh from their slumber.
Villain of the match: Salvatore Perugini earned a ticking-off for a little bit of gardening, and Mauro Bergamasco was sin-binned for an ugly moment, and the sight of his brother inviting Mike Phillips to hit him was even uglier. 'You want some?' probably sounds beautiful in Italian, but it was rather too soccer for our liking. Yes, Mirco Bergamasco gets our ghastly gong.
Tries: Hook 2, S Williams
Cons S Jones 3
Pens: S Jones 4
Con: Mi Begamasco
Pen: Mi Bergamasco
Yellow card(s): Ma Bergamasco (Italy) – off-side at ruck (55).
Wales: 15 Lee Byrne, 14 Tom Prydie, 13 James Hook, 12 Jamie Roberts, 11 Shane Williams, 10 Stephen Jones, 9 Mike Phillips, 8 Ryan Jones, 7 Sam Warburton, 6 Jonathan Thomas, 5 Luke Charteris, 4 Bradley Davies, 3 Adam Jones, 2