Wales 47 Italy 8
There was a hum of anticipation and expectation around the Millenium stadium as the early match proceeded towards kick off. With two questionable and far from convincing wins under their belts the arrogant Welsh were already drawing parallels with their surprising 2005 Grand Slam win. This game could have been so much different if it weren’t for two major turning points in the game, giving Wales in the end a flattering scoreline.
The game started off poor from an Italian point of view as the Latino passion effected Delappe’s discipline, with the Italian second row blatantly coming into the side of a ruck in front of Nigel Pearson the strict English referee. An easy three points from Stephen Jones to settle the nerves of the Welsh, surely remembering the embarrassment in Rome the year before.
When watched back the first ten minutes of the game will surely embarrass most of the Italian backline. The inability to kick and clear their lines ultimately leading to constant pressure from the Welsh. This pressure told as Masi, kicking the ball for only the third time in as many games, tried a deft yet ultimately daft chip on his own 10 metre line. This was promptly caught by Gavin Henson. Masi, in his eagerness to make up for his mistake, went straight over the top of the proceeding ruck thus gifting Jones with another easy three points.
This six point cushion so early in the game gave Wales some immunity. Peel a constant thorn in Italian sides, keeping the back row honest with some lethal snipes from rucks. He was unlucky not to find a winger in support on one occasion when a try looked odds on. Also in the following phase Shanklin was under the posts if it wasn’t for Jones holding back an Italian defender.
Yet throughout this barrage from Wales, due in part from Italy’s poor kicking, their defence remained strong and often dominant. Italy’s pack turning over some Welsh ruck ball. This dominance up front started to pay dividends as the Leicester prop Castrogiovanni took advantage of some wayward lineout throwing from Matthew Rees and bulldozed his way over the line after 11 minutes, leaving Peel in his wake. Marcato the young debutant missed with the conversion.
The Welsh players now started to feel the pressure as Italy gained the upper hand. It was at this moment Italy failed to capitalise, thus proving to be a pivital moment in the game. A quick lay off from an Italian lineout got the backs slicing through the Welsh defence like a hot knife through butter. Mauro Bergamasco`s pull back to Galon, who had timed his run to perfection easing through the gap off loading to Canale who had the line at his mercy, promptly proceeding to drop it. Nick Mallet the new Italian coach knew it was crucial they score, the agony on his face showing when they didn’t
It seemed like the previous let off had sparked Wales back into life. Shane Williams spotting slow forwards in the defensive line and promptly making a scintillating break off-loading to Matthew Rees the Welsh hooker who had worked hard to support. Sadly for the Welsh the pass came too late and the tenacious Italian defence survived, just. The relief was short lived as a penalty given for an Italian offside was tapped quickly and the Welsh grounded out an overlap on the right for Lee Byrne to stroll over for another try close to the half hour mark. Jones obliged with the conversion to leave the score 13-5.
In the last ten minutes of the half we began to see the start of errors creep into the defence of the Italians. A tackle count of more than double Wales was starting to take its toll. Yet it wasn’t all doom and gloom as an Evans obstruction on Mirco Bergamasco gave a debuting Marcato an attempt at three points. He couldn’t take advantage of the opportunity, hitting the left post as he had done with his previous conversion attempt. The margin for error so small in the international game.
The Italian full back was to redeem himself in the final moments of the half making a scything run through the Welsh ranks only for a lack of support and poor kicking to rob them of something more tangible. Italy were able to get a penalty after some dogged physical work by their pack. Marcato able to reward this work with a valuable three points leaving the half time score 13-8 and the game far from over.
Wales must have been relieved to hear the half time whistle. This was yet again not exactly an inspiring half of rugby from the Welsh, and the Italians were notoriously slow starters. Warren Gatlands new Welsh team were facing an uphill struggle even if they were at home.
Relative optimism from the Italians brought forth a second sucker punch in the early stages of the second half. The Italian backs, with their heads still in the changing rooms from half time, began to throw reckless wide passes. It was inevitable that the inexperienced outhalf Masi would be intercepted. Shanklin was the grateful recipient making his 50th cap all the more memorable with a score under the posts. The score now 20-8 with the successful conversion.
The writing was on the wall for the Italians. The early try had put to bed any attempts of salvaging anything from the game. We now started to see the blue wall of the Italian defence creak and crumble from the onslaught of Welsh attacks. Mike Phillips, who was on for an injured Dwayne Peel, showed this with a searing 50m dash. Luckily for the Italy making the poor decision to not off load to the flier Mark Jones who would have been easily under the sticks.
Within the first ten minutes of the restart, discipline for the Italians started to faulter also. Two quick penalties dispatched by the prolific Stephen Jones. The second resulting in a yellow car and subsequent sin binning for the Italian centre Mirco Bergamasco who was blatantly killing the ball, trying to stem the red tide.
Even when the Italians brought on the talismanic second row Bortolami the game was lost. A creative run by Lee Byrne eventually setting up a simple chance for Shane Williams to increase his already impressive international try tally. Lee Byrne then capped off a fine display by scoring a try of his own, taking advantage of some loose tackling by Italian defenders. Italian heads began to drop and lungs burning as they struggled on with 14 men.
It was Shane Williams that capped off a record breaking win over the Italians. His suave, smooth footwork fooling the tired Italians to take his own try count to 40, level with the record holder Gareth Thomas (“The Thug” as we affectionately know him). Hooks converted after being recently substituted on for Jones as outhalf. This put smiles on the Welsh faithful inside the Millenium stadium.
Ultimately this seems a dream game for Warren Gatlan`s Welsh side. Yet looks can be deceiving. The Italians lack of an effective kicker to quickly achieve any kind of territorial game plan and the inability to reach touch meant a constant onslaught of attacks from the talented Welsh three quarter, which included man of the match Lee Byrne. This led to an incredibly high tackle count, twice as much as their Welsh counterparts. Fitness took its toll in a disappointing second half as Wales scored 34 unanswered points.
The 28 unforced errors will also be a thorn in the performance when they watch the match back in the sobering day after. Wales done well to trounce a below par performance from a disappointing Italy. But if they played like this against a technically gifted side such as France they would struggle. Only time will tell.