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Gatland laments mistakes in ragged Wales start

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Wales wing Alex Cuthbert runs into the Italy defence

Wales wing Alex Cuthbert runs into the Italy defence

Wales player Jamie Roberts (l) makes a break before setting up Scott Williams (r) for the second Wales try

Wales player Jamie Roberts (l) makes a break before setting up Scott Williams (r) for the second Wales try

Wales player George North (l) contests a high ball with Angelo Esposito (c) and Joshua Furno (r) of Italy

Wales player George North (l) contests a high ball with Angelo Esposito (c) and Joshua Furno (r) of Italy

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Wales wing Alex Cuthbert runs into the Italy defence

History is still Wales's for the taking but they made hard work of it in their opening Six Nations clash against Italy.

Warren Gatland's side, seeking to become the first team in the tournament's history to win the title three years in a row, eventually saw off the ever-improving Italians. But they were far from their fluent best, particularly during a second half in which coach Rob Howley felt his players were guilty of "bizarre decision-making".

Perhaps there really is some truth in the adage about hangovers in tournaments following Lions tours. Even Leigh Halfpenny, the hero of the Lions tour to Australia last summer, missed a penalty and threw an intercepted pass that led to a late Italian try which closed the gap to five points and had the 66,974 crowd watching anxiously for the last 10 minutes. He is mortal after all.

"It probably looked like we were under more pressure than we felt on the park," was the verdict of Alun-Wyn Jones, the stand-in captain. "I think we were just a bit ragged. It was a potential banana skin to get out of the way."

That it was. And Wales will need to move up at least a couple of gears if they are to get anything from their trip to Lansdowne Road next weekend. Gatland perhaps betrayed his nerves at the reception that might await him on the other side of the Irish Sea when he responded testily to a question about his controversial decision to drop Brian O'Driscoll last summer.

"To be perfectly honest I'll be pretty pissed off if that's raised as an issue," he said. "If people want to make something of the situation between myself and Brian I think that's just lazy journalism. I've moved on and I know Brian has as well."

The build-up to this match was dominated by the unseemly row that has broken out between the regions and the WRU over Wales captain Sam Warburton's decision to sign a central contract with the union. Any fears that the timing or the nature of the dispute might affect the atmosphere, however, were quashed as Delilah and Guide me O Thou Great Redeemer were belted out with the usual gusto pre-match.

Italy did not look overawed but their promising opening was undone in the most unfortunate of circumstances, however; debutant winger Angelo Espotito deceived by the bounce of Rhys Priestland's grubber kick and Alex Cuthbert gratefully collecting the loose ball in the corner.

Despite the gulf in class, Wales struggled to impose themselves. Dan Lydiate, perhaps weary having become a father in midweek, was pinged at the ruck and Tommaso Allan to reduce the arrears.

Wales were nowhere near their best but they have class all through their back division and after 37 minutes Jamie Roberts took a short pass from Scott Williams, bounced off a couple of defenders, and returned the ball to his fellow centre who had continued his run. The try, duly converted, gave Wales a 17-3 lead at half-time but if they thought they would cruise it in the second half they were sorely mistaken.

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Italy scored within a minute of the restart, the excellent Michele Campagnaro chasing down Leonardo Sarto's canny kick up the line. And they would have put themselves within four points of Wales had Allan converted that try and not then missed an even easier penalty. Wales, though, were in forgiving mood and were made to pay when Campagnaro intercepted Halfpenny's pass with 10 minutes left and raced clear for his second try.

"They made it tough for us although we kept them in the game with some mistakes. We're off to a reasonable start," Gatland said before turning his attentions to Ireland. "We know it's a massive challenge. But it will be tough for them. They only have a six-day turnaround."

Telegraph

Scorers – Wales: A Cuthbert, S Williams try each, Halfpenny 2 cons 3 pens. Italy: M Campagnaro 2 tries, Allan con, pen

Wales: L Halfpenny; A Cuthbert, S Williams, J Roberts, G North; R Priestland, M Phillips (R Webb 68); P James (R Bevington, 79), R Hibbard (K Owens 68), A Jones (R Jones 65), L Charteris (A Coombs 58), AW Jones (capt), D Lydiate (S Warburton 65), J Tipuric, T Faletau.

Italy: L McLean; A Esposito, M Campagnaro, A Sgarbi, L Sarto (T Iannone 77); T Allan, E Gori (T Botes 66); M Rizzo (A de Marchi 56), L Ghiraldini (D Giazzon, 58), M Castrogiovanni (L Cittadini 69), Q Geldenhuys, M Bortolami (J Furno 69), A Zanni (F Minto 73), M Bergamasco (Minto 58-73), S Parisse (capt).

Referee: J Lacey (Ireland).


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