Wales give hint of true potential
If only Wales had finished the Six Nations in a similar shape and style to how they ended it. As it was, they have finished in fourth place for the second year in succession. Final position aside, though, the two campaigns could hardly have differed more.
In 2009 Wales went into the last week a single match away from the Triple Crown and with a shot at the title; in 2010 all they were in contention for was the wooden spoon.
For the first five minutes of this match, the booby prize looked a possibility. Italy began in furious fashion, flooding the left wing, where debutant Tom Prydie, at 18 years and 25 days the youngest man ever to play for Wales, found himself facing up to the hulking Mirco Bergamasco. Prydie was equal to the challenge, and after the Italian fly-half Craig Gower shanked a drop goal wide, Wales, and Prydie, began to assert themselves.
Mike Phillips was outstanding, quick of thought and foot, always looking for sneaky tap-and-go penalties.
Italy were unfortunate to lose Paolo Canavosio to injury in the 29th minute, especially so given that outside centre Gonzalo Canale had limped off almost immediately after the match had started. Canavosio's replacement, Tito Tebaldi, played so poorly that he was hauled off, replaced by Riccardo Bocchino.
The withdrawals undermined the Italian defence. Italy held themselves together through a combination of will power and desperation in the first half, but Gower's wayward drop goals aside they never looked likely to score.
Wales, on the other hand, threatened time and time again. Lee Byrne came within yards of the line twice in two minutes, hauled down by Luke McLean on each occasion. Byrne did cross moments later, but the try was disallowed because of a forward pass in the build-up.
Wales had to settle for a string of four goals from four attempts by Stephen Jones, Italy's costly penalty count allowing Wales to ease into a 12-0 lead by the break. Bergamasco had only one opportunity of his own to trim three points off the lead, and he missed it.
Italy cracked in the second. Tebaldi's afternoon reached a nadir when he flapped at James Hook, allowing the centre to slip past him for Wales' first try, in the 51st minute. The ease with which Hook scored seemed to irritate Mauro Bergamasco, who duly shoved him off his feet at a ruck moments later.
The referee, Wayne Barnes, sent Bergamasco to the sin-bin, and Hook promptly added a second try, every bit as simple as his first. In the space of five minutes Wales had extended their lead from 12-0 to 26-0, and the game was all but up. In the circumstances Mirco Bergamasco's 64th-minute penalty felt more than a little desultory.
Shane Williams stuck a cherry on top by diving over for Wales' third in the 70th minute, and with Jones adding another conversion to complete a perfect afternoon's goal kicking. Williams had been set up by a neat break from Byrne, who off-loaded to Tom Shanklin.
McLean capped his excellent match with a curving run back through the Welsh centre for a try in the 75th minute. By then, though, the thousands thronging the Millennium Stadium were too busy with their full throated renditions of Cwm Rhondda to notice much, though the score must have provided some slight consolation to Nick Mallett and his men.
As against France, they played well even when they had no chance of winning, a tribute to the resilience of their spirit. For the Welsh, this was a glimpse of just what they are capable of when they play to their full potential. Head coach Warren Gatland will only wish that they had been able to show it more consistently through the campaign.
Scorers -- Wales: Hook 2 tries, Williams try, S Jones 4 pens, 3 cons. Italy: McLean try, M Bergamasco try, con
Wales: L Byrne; T Prydie, J Hook, J Roberts (T Shanklin 63), S Williams; S Jones (A Bishop 69, W Phillips (D Peel 69); G Jenkins, M Rees (P James 63), A Jones (H Bennett 63), B Davies (I Gough 14), L Charteris, J Thomas, S Warburton, R Jones (G Delve 66).
Italy: L McLean; P Robertson, G Canale, G Garcia, M Bergamasco; C Gower, P Canavosio (T Tebaldi 24, R Bocchino 63), S Perugini (M Vosawai 54), L Ghiraldini (F Ongaro 64), M Castrogiovanni, Q Geldenhuys, M Bortolami (V Bernabo 72), J Sole (M Aguero 54), M Bergamasco, A Zanni.
Referee: W Barnes (RFU)