Hansen signs off on a high but deputy may follow

Wales 44 Italy 10
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No sooner have tear-streaked cheeks been wiped dry following the emotional and thrilling climax to Steve Hansen's reign as Wales coach than rumours of another departure surfaced in Cardiff. Hansen is off to his native New Zealand to become assistant to All Blacks coach Graham Henry, his predecessor in the Wales job. Now it would appear that Scott Johnson, Hansen's assistant, who has made such a massive impact as skills coach to the squad, has been linked to two vacancies, the first as assistant to Australia coach Eddie Jones, the second the top job at Leicester.

The Wallabies have been sounding out all Australians who are cutting their coaching teeth in Europe and, as a coach to the Australian A team that beat the 2001 Lions, Johnson would certainly have a deal of appeal Down Under.

But the Sydney-born Johnson is also reported to be on a Leicester short-list of three to step into Dean Richards' old role, which includes another Australian, Pat Howard, the former Tigers centre now player-coach at Montferrand, and apparently the South African fly-half Joel Stransky, who also played at Welford Road.

Johnson refused to say anything yesterday, but Hansen commented : "I would be surprised if Scott was going to Leicester. It would be huge for Welsh rugby if he stayed." Johnson's loss would be a severe blow since the evidence of his input was there for all to see during the six-try rout of Italy, as all 22 Welsh players used hands and head to fulfil the promise that was made to play an expansive game.

But nothing has been sorted out about John Kirwan's future as Italy's coach. He would give no indication as to whether he wanted to carry on, saying only: "My contract runs out in a couple of months, and we have not spoken about it because I wanted to wait until the end of the Six Nations." At least Iestyn Harris was able to dispel fears of his possible departure, back to rugby league. The former Leeds Rhino, who has looked considerably more comfortable in the inside-centre berth for Wales, has been the subject of persistent whispers this season that he wants to return to the 13-man code. But Harris is adamant he will honour the remaining 12 months of his contract with the Welsh Rugby Union.

"I have 12 months on my contract before I have to make any decision on my future," insisted Harris, 27, who plays for the Cardiff Blues. "I'm really enjoying my rugby at the moment. I've made the transition from 10 to 12, and I enjoy playing in the centre." That was evident from the way Harris contributed to a fast-flowing, exciting brand of running rugby.

The Azzurri are far more streetwise these days under Kirwan's astute guidance, but Wales were even cuter. As much as Italy tried to suck the Dragons into the dark and narrow alleyways of close-quarter combat, the Welsh ball carriers, whether forwards or backs, would invariably seek the broader boulevards out wide, where they knew they could inflict most damage and where lurked three of the deadliest finishers in the Six Nations.

Full-back Gareth Thomas and wingers Shane and Rhys Williams accounted for five tries - the sixth being scored by Harris' replacement, Tom Shanklin, who touched down 39 seconds after joining the feeding frenzy. That was his sixth international try, but he has some way to go to catch up with Thomas. When he raced over in the 56th minute for his 34th try for his country he overtook Ieuan Evans as Wales' leading try-scorer.

It was as fitting a finale to Hansen's 25 months in charge as you could wish for. And the stern-faced Kiwi even admitted to feeling a bit saddened when the final whistle went. "I knew it would be emotional and I was as close to shedding a tear at the end as I have ever been," admitted the former New Zealand policeman.

It was not all perfect though, and the new Wales coach, Mike Ruddock, will have his work cut out honing the set-piece, while the Welsh line-out still looks brittle and they contrived to lose four of their own throws to the Italians. But everyone and everything is on a high in Wales right now. "I think we've come a long way," said Harris, "we've just got to keep going in the right direction." Which can only be 'up' for the team. They just have to hope that it is not north or south for Johnson.

Wales 44
Tries: Thomas, Shanklin, S Williams 2, R Williams 2
Cons: S Jones 4
Pens: S Jones 2

Italy 10
Try: Masi
Con: Wakarua
Pen: De Marigny

Half-time: 16-0 Att: 72,500

WALES: G Thomas (Celtic Warriors); R Williams (Cardiff Blues), M Taylor (Llanelli Scarlets), I Harris (Cardiff Blues), S Williams (Neath-Swansea Ospreys); S Jones (Llanelli Scarlets), G Cooper (Celtic Warriors); Duncan Jones (Neath-Swansea Ospreys), R McBryde (Llanelli Scarlets), G Jenkins (Celtic Warriors), G Llewellyn (Neath-Swansea Ospreys), M Owen (Gwent Dragons), C Charvis (Tarbes, capt), M Williams (Cardiff Blues), Dafydd Jones (Llanelli Scarlets). Replacements: M Davies (Celtic Warriors) for McBryde 75; B Evans (Cardiff Blues) for Duncan Jones 80; R Sidoli (Celtic Warriors) for Owen 80; A Popham (Leeds Tykes) for Dafydd Jones 77; D Peel (Llanelli Scarlets) for Cooper 74; C Sweeney (Celtic Warriors) for S Jones 74; T Shanklin (Cardiff Blues) for Harris 60.

ITALY: G Canale (Benetton Treviso), N Mazzucato (Ghial Calvisano), A Masi (Viadana), C Stoica (Montpellier), D Dallan (Benetton Treviso); R de Marigny (Overmach Rugby Parma), P Griffen (Ghial Calvisano); A Lo Cicero (Lazio and Primavera), F Ongaro (Benetton Treviso), M Castrogiovanni (Ghial Calvisano), S Dellapé (Benetton Treviso), C Del Fava (Overmach Rugby Parma), M Bortolami (Safio Petrarca Padova), A de Rossi (Ghial Calvisano, capt), A Persico (Leeds Tykes). Replacements: S Perugini (Ghial Calvisano) for Castrogiovanni 59; R Mandelli (Ghial Calvisano) for Del Fava 59; S Orlando (Benetton Treviso) for Persico 13-24 & 41; S Picone (Benetton Treviso) for Masi 76; R Wakarua (Leonessa) for Mazzucato 53; Mi Bergamasco (Stade Français) for Dallan 55.

Referee: M Lawrence (South Africa).

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