Wales’s tilt at a record third consecutive Six Nations Championship began with no great boost to their points difference, which could be a worry if the title comes down to that next month. But after a second half in which Italy’s 20-year-old centre Michele Campagnaro scored two opportunistic tries, a narrow win was gratefully accepted.
“A number of years ago we’d have gone into meltdown under that pressure,” said Warren Gatland, the Wales head coach. “As defending champions, we know every team is going to come at us and make it tough. Another week together will do us good.”
Both teams will be away next weekend – Wales in Ireland, Italy in France – and both will be reasonably buoyant, though the Italians expressed baffled gripes over the Irish referee penalising their scrum for not driving straight. All Wales could muster as a scoring threat after half-time was two final-quarter penalties by their eminent full-back Leigh Halfpenny, who had also – gasp – missed one kick just after Campagnaro’s first try in the 43rd minute. “We’ve got to tighten up the mistakes or we’ll lose in Ireland,” said Wales’s Jamie Roberts.
It cannot be overlooked that Italy’s best work came when Wales were sitting comfortable on a 14-point lead. The 2012 and 2013 champions had a try at either end of the first half; the opener by Alex Cuthbert – the big wing’s 10th in 20 Tests – had a huge dollop of luck; the second by the centre Scott Williams, just a sliver. Italy’s debutant on the wing, Angelo Esposito, had his first touch in international rugby during 90 seconds of unbroken Italian possession following the kick-off. Unfortunately for Esposito his second touch went missing as Rhys Priestland’s deft grubber bounced wickedly away from him and Cuthbert pounced.
Italy’s newish fly-half Tommaso Allan kicked a penalty in the 14th minute, and there were two scrum offences against Wales that had Adam Jones and Paul James scratching their heads. Then Sergio Parisse, the Italy captain, daftly nudged into his Welsh counterpart Alun Wyn Jones at a line-out and Halfpenny, who had converted Curthbert’s try, kicked the 35-metre penalty for 10-3. Parisse went close to a try when he knocked forward in an aerial battle with George North. But the expected order was resumed after 37 minutes when a penalty against Italy’s pack was beautifully punted by Priestland for a line-out 30 metres out. Toby Faletau’s tap-down fell behind Mike Phillips, but it flat-footed Italy slightly to Wales’s advantage. In the midfield Roberts took his fellow centre Williams’s short outside pass, crashed past Alberto Sgarbi and fed back inside for Williams’s run-in and a conversion by Halfpenny.
Campagnaro’s first try came from turnover ball and a pass to Leonardo Sarto who booted down the left touchline from his own 10-metre line to turn Faletau. The three-man foot race was won by Campagnaro but Allan missed the conversion. When Parisse caught the restart, a simple obstruction led to Halfpenny’s missed penalty and a long period of Welsh frustration ensued. Italy gave the ball some air and pressed hard up on their hosts. There was relief for Wales when Allan hit a post with a 50th-minute penalty, then Mauro Bergamasco’s dive to the floor ruined a multi-phase Italy attack.
The crowd was around 7,500 down on capacity but there were lusty cheers for Sam Warburton’s entrance from the bench, suggesting no adverse feeling over Wales’s squad captain recently signing a national central contract, while the politicking between the regions and the Welsh Rugby Union took at least an 80-minute break. A third penalty against Italy’s scrum for supposed crooked driving allowed Halfpenny to kick Wales 20-8 ahead with 13 minutes remaining, but his miss-pass to Roberts seeking some width was picked off by Campagnaro for a try converted by Allan to set up a tense finish. Then Italy fell offside after a dozen Welsh phases and Halfpenny’s kick, 15 metres in from touch, scudded low over the bar to outdo the Azzurri for good.
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).