Friday 25 May 2018

Wales up to second as they brush aside Italy

Wales 38 Italy 14

Wales’ Taulupe Faletau and Seb Davies celebrate after the match
Wales’ Taulupe Faletau and Seb Davies celebrate after the match

Andrew Baldock

Wales moved up to second in the NatWest 6 Nations table behind champions Ireland after claiming an expected bonus point victory over Italy.

It was not always plain sailing for Wales before they made it 12 successive wins against the Azzurri, but their superior class and finishing ability ultimately told during a 38-14 triumph.

Wing George North - back in action following a recent difficult time at his club Northampton - set the tone with a try double, while centre Hadleigh Parkes, lock Cory Hill and flanker Justin Tipuric also crossed.

Fly-half Gareth Anscombe kicked three conversions and a penalty, while substitute Leigh Halfpenny added two conversions, although Italy initially refused to go quietly.

They replied through a touchdown for full-back Matteo Minozzi that fly-half Tomasso Allan converted, making it 14-7, before Mattia Bellini touched down late on - Carlo Canna added the extras - yet a much-changed Wales team never found themselves under serious threat as North took centre-stage.

Northampton boss Alan Gaffney appeared to question whether North, who was released on schedule by Wales during a fallow Six Nations week, wanted to play for his club in an Aviva Premiership game eight days ago.

But the juggernaut runner added two more touchdowns to an impressive Wales tally, making it 32 and moving just one behind Ieuan Evans on his country's all-time try-scoring list.

Wales averaged 46 points a time in their last four games against Italy, and they made a flying start by posting two converted tries during the opening six minutes.

Parkes bounced off two Italian defenders to claim Wales' opener, then before Italy could regain their composure, Wales centre Owen Watkin cut the Azzurri defence apart from deep and his pass found North, who finished off for his 31st Test match touchdown, with Anscombe adding both conversions.

Any hint of Wales complacency, though, was swiftly removed when Italy responded through a try by Minozzi - he capitalised on hesitant Welsh defensive work - and Allan's conversion made it 14-7 after 10 minutes.

Italy were buoyed by the score, and they kept Wales pinned back before Allan missed a 35-metre penalty chance 10 minutes before half-time.

Wales could not re-establish initial momentum, and they were content to increase their advantage through a 35th-minute Anscombe penalty.

But the home side ended the opening 40 minutes reduced to 14 men when full-back Liam Williams was sin-binned for a dangerous tackle on his opposite number Minozzi, as Wales' early promise continued to show signs of evaporating, even though they led 17-7 at the break.

Wales needed to regroup following a lacklustre second quarter, and they delivered within four minutes of the restart as sustained close-range pressure ended with Hill claiming his first Test try.

Anscombe added the extras, leaving Wales with the best part of 35 minutes to claim a bonus point score.

But they were briefly reduced to 13 players after scrum-half Gareth Davies received a yellow card for a deliberate knock-on, while head coach Warren Gatland sent on Halfpenny as a replacement for Williams.

Italy, to their credit, defended valiantly, never giving up despite conceding more than 20 tries in this season's tournament, but North ensured the five-point maximum when he crossed 14 minutes from time.

And Tipuric confirmed an emphatic success as defensive gaps inevitably began to open, before Italy claimed a consolation try when Bellini was freed on an overlap. But the visitors ended the game a man short as Tommaso Benvenuti received a yellow card for a deliberate knock-on.

Press Association

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