Solid end may have got Gatland off the hook – for now

Wales 33 Italy 10
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The Independent Online

Warren Gatland has now been living long enough in Cardiff to realise Welsh optimism is like Welsh coal – readily combustible. The Kiwi appreciates that whatever hope was raised by Saturday's impressive finish to a deeply frustrating Championship could easily go up in smoke later in the year –and that he could be the man left buried in the ashes.

Gatland has just entered the period which, in his position of employment, has become known as "the sacking season". It may seem barely credible but in the year before each of the last five World Cups a Wales coach has lost his job. Ron Waldron (1991), Alan Davies (1995), Kevin Bowring (1999), Graham Henry (2003) and Mike Ruddock (2007) – none of them made the finals for which they had built.

Gatland is modest enough to know he is not immune to the curse. "If you don't get results, people are going to start pointing the finger and say 'Sorry, we need to make a change'," he said, mindful of the fixture list for the rest of 2010 which sees his side play New Zealand (three times), South Africa (twice) and Australia. "If that happens and the union turn around and get rid of me, I will just look at it as an experience I've learnt from."

If that sounds as if Gatland would go without a fight, it shouldn't. He is already in there fighting. Before what proved to be a wooden spoon decider against Italy, Gatland informed the players they were not only carrying their country's expectations but also the coaching staff's P45s. "We've told them no matter what happens with performance and results, most of the players are going to be here for the World Cup," said Gatland. "But the likelihood is that if those players don't perform most of the coaches aren't going to be here."

For the moment his dole queue fears have been alleviated. The players responded with a three-try victory, which should have been a 50-pointer, and gave Gatland just his second win in the Championship in the last seven games. It might have been "only Italy" but it was mighty welcome. "Today we saw the real Wales," crooned Gatland's assistant, Shaun Edwards. "We have a very good first XV and as soon as we get our marquee players back we are the Wales of 2008."

Edwards was referring to the return from injury of Gethin Jenkins and Mike Phillips, both Lions starting their first match of the campaign. While Jenkins was at the heart of everything in a forward effort which saw the supposed Italian threats nullified, Phillips showed exactly how influential he is in setting free this fleet-footed threequarter line.

Outside the scrum-half, Stephen Jones enjoyed his best game for Wales for a long time. His control and distribution helped James Hook to two tries and Shane Williams to his obligatory touchdown. If the Dragonhood have learnt anything from this Six Nations it is that the strength in depth just isn't there. Take out a Phillips and a Jenkins and they look decidedly average. Saying that, the debut of Tom Prydie – at 18, Wales' youngest-ever international – was eye-catching and Sam Warburton did at least raise the possibility of open-side life after Martyn Williams.

Nick Mallett was certainly impressed. "I think Wales on the attack are better than any other team in this competition, except possibly France," said the Italian coach. "But I have nothing but praise for my team. We showed great courage only letting Wales score three tries. This has been a more positive Six Nations than 2009. We have played it all without Sergio Parisse and I'm very happy."

However, Mallett's mood was about to be tested. Scotland were about to beat Ireland and so consign the Italians to their third wooden spoon in a row since the South African took over. Gatland should count himself lucky.

Wales: Tries Hook 2, Williams; Conversions Jones 3; Penalties S Jones 4. Italy: Try McLean; Conversion Mirco Bergamasco; Penalty: Mirco Bergamasco.

Wales: L Byrne, T Prydie, J Hook (all Ospreys), J Roberts (Blues), S Williams (Ospreys); S Jones (Scarlets), M Phillips (Ospreys); G Jenkins (Blues), M Rees (Scarlets), A Jones (Ospreys), B Davies (Blues), L Charteris (Dragons), J Thomas (Ospreys), S Warburton (Blues), R Jones (Ospreys, capt). Replacements: P James (Ospreys) for A Jones, 3-13, 66; I Gough (Ospreys) for Davies, 19; H Bennett (Ospreys) for Rees, 67; T Shanklin (Blues) for Roberts, 67; G Delve (Gloucester) for R Jones, 70, D Peel (Sharks) for Phillips, 72, A Bishop (Ospreys) for S Jones, 72.

Italy: L McLean (Treviso); K Robertson (Viadana), G Canale (Clermont Auvergne), G Garcia (Treviso), Mirco Bergamasco (Stade Français); C Gower (Bayonne), P Canavosio (Viadana); S Perugini (Bayonne), L Ghiraldini (Treviso), M Castrogiovanni (Leicester), M Bortolami (Gloucester), Q Geldenhuys (Viadana), J Sole (Viadana), Mauro Bergamasco (Stade Français), A Zanni (Treviso). Replacements: M Pratichetti (Viadana) for Canale, 6; T Tebaldi (Gran Parma) for Canavosio, 30; M Vosawai (Parma) for Sole, 57; M Aguero (Saracens) for Perugini, 61; R Bocchino (Rovigo) for Tebaldi, 66; F Ongaro (Saracens) for Ghiraldini, 69; V Bernabo (Roma) for Bortolami, 77.

Referee: W Barnes (England).