Friday 22 November 2019

Wales stay in the hunt for title by brushing aside brave Italy

Italy 9 Wales 26

Wales' George North (R) tackles Italy's Luke McLean
Wales' George North (R) tackles Italy's Luke McLean
Wales' Alex Cuthbert (R) scores a try as Italy's Kristopher Burton looks on
Wales' Leigh Halfpenny avoids a tackle during match

Andrew Baldock

REIGNING champions Wales kept themselves firmly in the RBS 6 Nations title race after brushing Italy aside at a sodden Stadio Olimpico.

Second half tries by centre Jonathan Davies and wing Alex Cuthbert, plus 16 points from the boot of full-back Leigh Halfpenny - saw Wales post a comfortable win.

Fly-half Kristopher Burton kicked three penalties for the Azzurri, but without their suspended skipper Sergio Parisse, Italy never seriously threatened to emulate home victories over Wales in 2003 and 2007.

Parisse, sent off for insulting a referee in a French League game last weekend, is currently serving a 30-day ban, and Italy lacked inspiration in his absence.

Stand-in skipper Martin Castrogiovanni did his best to rally the troops, but the Leicester prop's day was summed up when he received a 59th-minute yellow card and Cuthbert scored in his absence.

It was Wales' fourth successive Six Nations away win - a feat they had never previously accomplished in the tournament's 13-year history - and sets them up for appointments with Scotland and England next month.

If they triumph at Murrayfield, it would probably mean a title shoot-out against Millennium Stadium visitors England.

Although the first half was far from plain sailing - Wales only led 9-6 at the break - they went up a gear when it mattered and left Italy treading water.

Wales, after toppling France 16-6 in Paris a fortnight ago, have now also gone two Six Nations on the bounce without conceding a try, which suggests Scotland and England might have their work cut out.

The initial exchanges were predictably error-strewn given testing conditions under foot, but Halfpenny kicked Wales into an eighth-minute lead.

Wales dominated the early territorial contest, with centre Jamie Roberts prominent, before Burton hauled Italy level when the visitors infringed at a scrum.

The slippery surface continued to cause problems though, underlined when Dan Biggar's poor attempted kick to touch was knocked on by Italy scrum-half Edoardo Gori and Wales gained a penalty which Halfpenny kicked.

Wales deserved their lead yet there was a need for them to tighten up in certain areas and concentrate on wearing Italy down gradually rather than looking to attack at every opportunity.

Wales put themselves under pressure when Cuthbert knocked on inside his own 22 - but Italy could not take advantage against a well-organised defence and they resorted to a drop-goal attempt but Burton fired well wide.

It was a cue for the heavens to open once again, yet Burton regained his composure and slotted a 29th-minute penalty which cut Italy's deficit.

Wales then threatened through the enterprising Biggar, who freed Cuthbert on a touchline run, only for centre Gonzalo Canale to thwart the danger with a tap tackle.

Wales led by three points at the break but they struck with the game's opening try after 45 minutes when Davies gathered loose possession following a defensive fumble by Burton and Gori and powered over for a try that Halfpenny converted to give Wales a degree of breathing space.

Italy needed to react quickly but they were unable to do so until Burton completed his penalty hat-trick - only for Halfpenny to land another penalty and hoist Wales 19-9 ahead with 25 minutes remaining.

The Azzurri's problems were compounded when Castrogiovanni was sin-binned following a scrummaging infringement and Wales took immediate advantage.

Biggar's excellent pass found Cuthbert, whose exquisite angle of running split and stretched Italian defence and crossed for his seventh Test try.

Halfpenny effortlessly converted from the touchline, and Wales were home and dry with almost a quarter of the contest still remaining.

Sam Warburton, Wales' 2011 World Cup captain and last season's Grand Slam skipper, took over from current leader Ryan Jones with 12 minutes remaining, and with the likes of Alun-Wyn Jones and Paul James already on as substitutes, Wales were in cruise control.

With the game won, it was a case of closing out the final 10 minutes - and there were final changes off the bench as centre Scott Williams gained a run instead of Roberts, while prop Craig Mitchell and fly-half James Hook also appeared.

Italy continue to go in pursuit of a consolation score but it was not to be and Wales finished the game exactly as they had spent most of the second period - on the front foot.

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