Not for the first time since Justin Tipuric announced himself as a world-class flanker just too late to make the squad for the 2011 World Cup, Wales are pondering the formulation of their enviably well resourced back row.
On Saturday, during the 23-15 win over Italy in Cardiff that launched their bid for a third successive Six Nations Championship title, the Welsh deployed Sam Warburton from the bench, partly as a nod to their squad captain’s two months’ inactivity with an injured shoulder. The starting flankers either side of Taulupe Faletau (“Don’t call me Toby” is the No 8’s polite request) were Tipuric as the openside flanker and the chop-tackling defensive colossus that is Dan Lydiate. But what to do for the best in Ireland this weekend in round two?
“We try to play with quick ball and fair play to Italy, they slowed it down,” said Lydiate, “and with a couple of intercepts and the problem we had in the ruck area to get turned over, there is something we definitely need to address going into next week’s game. It was good to see Sam back; he was certainly chucking himself about – he had a bloody nose at the end of the game – and that 20 minutes or so will have done him a world of good. We’ve got two really good No 7s there.
“Tips has been on fire this season, and I like playing with both of them. But then obviously they can play six and seven together, as they did last year [in the Six Nations victory over England] and did so well at. The coaches are spoilt for choice at the minute.”
Lydiate conceded a couple of penalties at the breakdown but the question is whether Wales use the wide-ranging momentum of Warburton and Tipuric in Dublin. The 2012 and 2013 champions started in confident style against the Italians, aided by a little luck in the fourth minute when Rhys Priestland’s grubber towards the right-hand corner bounced horribly for the debutant Italy wing Angelo Esposito, allowing Alex Cuthbert to chase through for his 10th try in 20 Tests.
On the other wing George North continued in awe-inspiring form, sprinting and sidestepping without quite making a breakthrough.
It took a try straight from a line-out in the 38th minute – cleverly manufactured for Scott Williams between him and his fellow centre Jamie Roberts – to have Wales 17-3 by half-time. The 20-year-old Italy centre Michele Campagnaro scored twice in the second half – one from a turnover and a kick and chase, the other by intercepting Leigh Halfpenny’s pass – but Halfpenny’s three penalties from four attempts kept Wales in the clear.
“We lost to Ireland in Cardiff last year and we’ll take a close look at how we can unlock them over there,” said Lydiate, who may visit his new baby at home in Paris on a day off this week. “Hopefully we’ll be a lot better for this hit-out. Ireland have good depth in their squad too so it’s going to be a good tussle.”
Neither Italy nor Warren Gatland, the Wales head coach who resumed Six Nations duty after a year’s sabbatical where he had left off with the 2012 Grand Slam, and railed angrily about “lazy journalism” when questioned about last summer’s Lions dropping of Brian O’Driscoll, could comprehend the Irish referee John Lacey’s handling of the scrum.
To see the Azzurri penalised three times for not driving straight was unusual, though not necessarily incorrect. It helped Wales subdue opponents who have more worries over some of their creaking veterans than promising youngsters Campagnaro and Tommaso Allan.
Scorers: Wales: Tries Cuthbert, Williams; Conversions Halfpenny 2; Penalties Halfpenny 3. Italy: Tries Campagnaro 2; Conversion Allan; Penalty Allan.
Wales: L Halfpenny; A Cuthbert, S Williams, J Roberts, G North; R Priestland, M Phillips (R Webb 68); P James (R Bevington 79), R Hibbard (K Owens 68), A Jones (R Jones 65), L Charteris (A Coombs 58), AW Jones (capt), D Lydiate (S Warburton 65), J Tipuric, T Faletau.
Italy: L McLean; A Esposito, M Campagnaro, A Sgarbi, L Sarto (T Iannone 77); T Allan, E Gori (T Botes 66); M Rizzo (A de Marchi 56), L Ghiraldini (D Giazzon 58), M Castrogiovanni (L Cittadini 69), Q Geldenhuys, M Bortolami (J Furno 69), A Zanni (F Minto 73), M Bergamasco (Minto 58-73), S Parisse (capt).
Referee: J Lacey (Ireland)