Wales took gold in Rome's Olympic Stadium but it was a tarnished reward for an inconsistent performance that will disturb their coach, Kevin Bowring, especially as he has to prepare to take on the giants of Australia and South Africa in December.
The Italians are the bambini of European rugby, but they proved yesterday that they should not be taken lightly any more. The Italian Federation want to be part of an expanded six-nation European championship, and on the evidence against Wales they can more than hold their own. The nine- point margin of defeat flattered Wales. After all, the Italians actually led by a point, at 22-21, with 15 minutes to go and then had two tries disallowed by the South African referee Carl Spannenberg. It was enough to test the Italian temperament.
No doubt the few Welsh supporters in the disappointing crowd of 10,000 would have given their team's performance the big thumbs down, Nero style. Despite leading 18-9 at half-time, Wales' forwards became worryingly ponderous in the second half and allowed Italy too much possession, time and space.
Italy have a class outside-half in Diego Dominguez, who controlled proceedings with thoughtful kicking and some slick passing. His opposite number, on the other hand, Neil Jenkins, was below his best and it was a charge down from his kick to touch that was responsible for producing the first disallowed try - a score that looked hard to fault on the television replay.
On the upside for the Welsh coach, the way in which the new centre partnership of Scott Gibbs and Gareth Thomas provided Wales with an edge in attack must have been heartening. It all started so promisingly for Wales as they cruised to a 13-0 lead within the first 20 minutes, with Italy displaying certain defensive frailties. A wayward kick by the full-back Massimo Ravazzolo, after Rob Howley had gone close, provided a soft try for the left-wing Daffydd James, who left three tacklers in his wake as he crossed in the left corner. Either side of that converted try, Jenkins put over two penalties as Wales threatened to leave Italy standing.
But Italy's European ambitions were enough to inspire a comeback, Dominguez kicking two penalties to close the deficit. Despite Italy giving away a soft second try, when Howley put Thomas over, they were still very much in the game when Dominguez kicked his third penalty before of half-time.
Italy caught Wales cold in the second half after Dominguez and Jenkins had traded penalties, and the home side rallied to produce a try for the centre Ivan Francescato which gave his team-mates the self-belief they needed. Dominguez's fifth penalty took Italy into a one-point lead.
Wales, whose confidence wavered when full-back Wayne Proctor had to be carried off after a collision with Paolo Vaccari, forcing them to field Leigh Davies as his replacement, suddenly looked ragged.
It took the combined brilliance of Gibbs and Thomas to extract their team from the mire. Gibbs went on a typically brutal break before Thomas scythed his way through the Italian midfield to touch down behind the posts. Jenkins converted to ease Wales clear of their rivals. Italy responded with all-out attack which should have got them just reward. But the two disallowed tries dented their spirits and it was Wales who had the final say with an injury-time penalty for Jenkins that secured a less-than-inspiring victory.
Italy: M Ravazzolo; P Vaccari, S Bordon, I Francescato, L Manteri; D Dominguez, A Troncon; M Cuttitta (capt), C Orlandi, F Properzi, P Pedroni, D Scaglia, A Sgorlon, C Checchinato, O Orancio. Replacements: J Pertile for Vaccari; R Rampazzo for Checchinato; A Castellani for Properzi.
Wales: W Proctor (Llanelli); S Hill (Cardiff), G Thomas (Bridgend), S Gibbs (Swansea), D James (Bridgend); N Jenkins (Pontypridd), R Howley (Cardiff); C Loader (Swansea), J Humphreys (Cardiff, capt), J Davies (Neath), G Llewellyn (Harlequins), D Jones (Cardiff), H Taylor (Cardiff), S Williams (Neath), K Jones (Ebbw Vale). Replacements: L Davies (Cardiff) for Proctor; M Williams (Pontypridd) for K Jones.
Referee: C Spannenberg (South Africa).Reuse content