Roberts leads way to grand finale
Wales 24 Italy 3: Wales struggle to break free of determined Italy but two tries set up another clean-sweep chance against France
The dream remains alive for Wales, the dream of a third Grand Slam in eight seasons. In truth, Italy were never going to derail Welsh ambitions here, but they did give a country vibrant with expectation pause for thought.
Whatever the outcome of France's match against England in Paris this afternoon, the French will be formidable opponents at the Millennium Stadium in Saturday's final round. Having seen how hard Wales had to work to beat England at Twickenham and then Italy on home soil, never mind the opening wins over Ireland and Scotland, the Welsh public cannot assume a success to match those of 2005 and 2008.
They forget too easily how hard it is for the players to live up to expectations, especially in a team in which many are still learning to handle themselves on the international stage. Victory over Italy, it was assumed, could be taken for granted. But after a first half in which Wales utterly dominated territory yet led only 9-3, such assumptions were being questioned.
Italy, having collapsed like a pricked balloon against Ireland, had changed half their starting XV. Whatever their limitations in attack, no one could question their commitment in defence. So often the Welsh backs cut delightful angles but came up short of Italy's line, the most obvious example being set by Sergio Parisse, who saved a certain score when Leigh Halfpenny seemed clear.
But here are Wales, unbeaten and brimming with confidence, optimistic that their injured captain, Sam Warburton, will be fit to face France after missing yesterday's game with damaged knee ligaments. If they needed more to spice the dish, it came from two of their younger men, Dan Lydiate and Alex Cuthbert.
Lydiate, the blindside flanker, was outstanding in his work-rate while Cuthbert, with the arrogance of youth, embellished the scoreline two minutes from the end with a run that screamed: "Stop me if you can". From a tapped penalty 40 metres out, the Cardiff Blues wing curved his way past Giulio Toniolatti into the corner, emphasising the ease with which Wales had ridden out a period when they were reduced to 14 men.
Halfpenny spent 10 minutes in the sin-bin for a dangerous challenge on Parisse in mid-air and he deserved his yellow card, but it would not have been awarded had George Clancy, the referee, not chosen to ignore a glaring knock-on by Mirco Bergamasco seconds earlier. That would have given Wales an attacking scrum on the Italy 22. It was not one of the Irish official's better afternoons. At times it seemed as though the team trying to play positive rugby, mostly Wales, were being penalised for doing so.
"We have to get the message to referees to be positive to the team trying to play," said a clearly frustrated Warren Gatland, the Wales head coach. "I don't think everything has to be 100 per cent to the letter of the law when so much depends on interpretation."
Wales conceded 13 penalties and Italy 12, higher than either side would have liked. It wrecked the flow of a game which had begun with such promise. Wales laid their cards on the table with a move which flowed back and forth, producing dramatic line-breaks for Cuthbert and George North. Yet such moves ended either in a turnover or a penalty.
As a platform, the scrum was almost non-existent – of the seven that took place, four ended in penalties. The quality of the rugby hinged on the breakdown, which was, in Gatland's words, "a bit of a mess". The line-out was the most rewarding phase, Ian Evans in dominant form and Italy losing three throws. In addition, Alun Wyn Jones showed that he is approaching his best form after a toe injury made him unavailable at the start of the championship.
Jones it was who won the ball on the floor in his own 22, prompting the first try. It came early in the second half after Halfpenny, kicking beautifully, had kicked three penalties to one from Bergamasco before the interval. Arguably Wales would not have been penned in their own territory had the referee decided that North, scuttling back in defence, had been prevented from getting to his feet by Parisse.
When the ball emerged, however, Wales were swiftly into their stride. Jamie Roberts, on his own 10-metre line, cut inside the hobbling Leonardo Ghiraldini and outstripped Luke McLean in an imperious run to the line. When Justin Tipuric, with a marvellous one-handed take, nearly made the line in one corner and Cuthbert was just stopped in the other, it seemed Wales would soon break clear.
Halfpenny's departure hurt their rhythm but Rhys Priestland kicked a penalty, allowing Gatland to empty his bench and give a first cap at scrum-half to Rhys Webb. It was left to Cuthbert to provide the coup de grâce.
"The youngsters have got their heads on, they're taking things in their stride and that's fantastic," Gatland said. "There will be a huge amount of hype over the next week but the players are in a good place."
Wales L Halfpenny; A Cuthbert (both Cardiff Blues), J Davies (Scarlets), J Roberts (Blues), G North; R Priestland (both Scarlets), M Phillips (Bayonne); G Jenkins (Blues, capt), M Rees (Scarlets), A Jones, AW Jones, I Evans (all Ospreys), D Lydiate, T Faletau (both Dragons), J Tipuric (Ospreys). Replacements L Charteris (Dragons) for AW Jones, 63; K Owens (Scarlets) for Rees, 63; R Jones (Ospreys) for Faletau, 66; S Williams (Scarlets) for Davies, 69; P James (Ospreys) for A Jones, 70; R Webb (Ospreys) for Phillips, 71; J Hook (Perpignan) for Halfpenny, 73.
Italy A Masi (Aironi); M Bergamasco (Racing Métro), G Canale (Clermont Auvergne), A Sgarbi, L McLean; K Burton, F Semenzato (all Treviso); A Lo Cicero (Racing Métro), L Ghiraldini, L Cittadini (both Treviso), Q Geldenhuys (Aironi), C van Zyl, A Zanni (both Treviso), S Parisse (Stade Francais, capt), S Favaro (Aironi). Replacements M Bortolami (Aironi) for Van Zyl, 51; F Staibano (Aironi) for Cittadini, 51; T D'Apice (Aironi) for Ghiraldini, 53; R Barbieri (Treviso) for Favaro, 63; T Benvenuti (Treviso) for Canale, 66; T Botes (Treviso) for Semenzato, 66; G Toniolatti (Aironi) for Masi, 71; Cittadini for Lo Cicero, 72.
Referee: G Clancy (Ireland).
Tries: Roberts, Cuthbert
Pens: Halfpenny 3, Priestland
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