Rugby Union: Thomas keeps Italy at arm's length

Wales 23 Italy 20 Tries: Penalty try, G Thomas Tries: Sgorlan, Stoica Cons: Jenkins 2 Cons: Dominguez 2 Pens: Jenkins 3 Pens: Dominguez 2
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The Independent Online
FOR both sides there is much to ponder for their Five Nations' Championship future, be that in two weeks time for Wales at Twickenham or, as looks likely, in the year 2,000 for the still emerging Italians.

Ultimately Wales recorded their fifth win in five matches against Italy but, as the visitors' administrators are keen to point out, results are not everything.

Their performance, with the Argentine born outside-half Diego Dominguez stylishly to the fore, was thoroughly competitive and Wales were thankful to take the spoils. The seam-busting 14,000 plus crowd at Stradey was no doubt suffused with Schadenfreude at England's downfall in Paris.

It was up to Wales to stir emotions of a more positive nature. This they failed to do during a listless first half. Wales' renowned big-hitters paid small dividends. Scott Quinnell, on his first international appearance since last year's Five Nation's, Gareth Thomas twice, and Scott Gibbs all bludgeoned their way into Italian arms only to turn over possession.

Allan Bateman, who transferred his sparkling club form to the international stage here, was alone in showing an eye for the gap rather than the clutches of his opposite number. Just as well, in Christian Stoica and Luca Martin, Italy had centres of real potency and the evergreen Dominguez was ever alert inside them.

Italy were eminently tidy in their work at least until the 29th minute when, with the score at 3-3, a loose clearance kick from the full-back, Corrado Pilat, handed Wales the impetus. Gareth Thomas stormed up field and eventually Wales won a penalty at a ruck kicked by Neil Jenkins.

The Wales full-back had earlier exchanged penalties with Dominguez and Jenkins struck again to move his side 9-3 ahead at half time.

More subtlety was called for from Wales yet Italy looked the more likely to provide it. The Welsh Rugby Union president, Sir Tasker Watkins, wrote in the match programme that Italy, who are waiting for the green light from England in 12 days time, were about to "destroy the Five Nations at it stands now".

Certainly Italy's overall record, despite their recent wins over France, Ireland and Scotland, would make them the sixth-ranked nation in an expanded championship Better though, for them to learn on the inside rather than remain with their noses pressed to the classroom window.

Italy attacked on the restart and after Wales had held the visitors up over their own line, Dominguez kicked a penalty to cut the home lead to 9-6 five minutes. Wales hit back immediately and were camped deep inside the Italian 22, but some desperate tackling prevented them extending their lead.

Subtlety not forthcoming, Wales concentrated their efforts into a protracted series of scrums on their left flank. At first Italy had the put in, but once they had turned that over Wales piled forward. One charge by Quinnell was held up but the resistance could not last. When the scrum-half, Alessandro Troncon, appeared to dive in to thwart Wales' rumble forward the referee, Steve Lander, never one to shirk a penalty try decision, duly trotted with arm raised to the posts.

Dominguez was not done, though, and his coruscating break set up the Italians first try by Stoica after 68 minutes and breathed real life into the closing stages.

Wales sent on fresh legs in the shape of Cardiff's Jon Humphries and Swansea' Colin Charvis, and got the try they needed with two minutes of normal time remaining. From a scrum in midfield, Gareth Thomas came off his wing to take a pass from his namesake Arwel at full tilt and set off on a 50 metre run to the right hand corner with barely a hand laid on him.

Italy were immediately back on the offensive and it needed a fine tackle by Gareth Thomas to keep Pilat from making the corner. Even then, from the resulting scrum, Ginbattista Croci, who had fought a tremendous battle with the Wales lock Gareth Llewellyn all evening, set up the flanker Andrea Sgorlon who bundled over with the support his No 8, Julian Gardner.

Wales: N Jenkins (Pontypridd); I Evans (Bath), A Bateman (Richmond), S Gibbs (Swansea), G Thomas (Cardiff); A Thomas (Swansea), R Howley (Cardiff, capt); A Lewis (Cardiff), B Williams (Richmond), D Young (Cardiff), G Llewellyn (Harlequins), M Voyle (Llanelli), R Appleyard (Swansea), M Williams (Pontypridd), S Quinnell (Richmond). Replacements: J Humphries (Cardiff) for B Williams, 70; C Charvis (Swansea) for M Williams, 70.

Italy: C Pilat (Benetton); P Vaccari (Calvisano), C Stoica (Narbonne), L Martin (Padova), Marcello Cuttitta (Milan); D Dominguez (Stade Francais), A Troncon (Benetton); Massimo Cuttitta (Harlequins), C Orlandi (Milan), A Castellani (L'Aquila), V Cristofoletto (Benetton), G Croci (Milan), M Giovanelli (Narbonne, capt), A Sgorlon (Benetton), J Gardner (Benetton).

Referee: S Lander (England).