Wales develop taste for revenge on a Grand scale
Wales 24 Italy 3
The Millennium Stadium
Monday 12 March 2012
In Wales, they have been waiting to play France since the moment the curtain came down on a wonderful World Cup campaign and what better way to gain a measure of revenge than by wrapping up a Grand Slam.
For five months the frustration of their semi-final tragedy in Auckland at the hands of Les Bleus and anger over the controversial red card shown to captain Sam Warburton has festered and eaten away at the Welsh.
Next Saturday, the Dragons have the ideal opportunity to unleash that ire and clinch an historic third Grand Slam in eight years, following this nervy victory over Italy on Saturday.
Those two words had, up until now, been banned within the Wales squad as they went about systematically chipping their way through the Six Nations, clinching a Triple Crown en route. Now there will simply be no escaping the excitement of what victory over France would achieve. Wales have been here before in recent years but not the majority of this young team, most of whom only began their international adventures in the past 12 months, among them the muscle-bound wing George North, who had not even sat his GCSEs at the last Grand Slam in 2008.
"We can't deny the fact we have a Grand Slam game coming up but we're quite good at blanking out the buzz. We will dig in and train hard and try to treat it as just another Test match," he said.
"We'll let our rugby do our talking. A lot of people will hype up the game because it's France but we can only affect things on the pitch. You can call it revenge or redemption but it's just another game, which could lead to a good finish in the Six Nations.
"The World Cup semi-final is still a sore subject," North added. "One man's decision was another man's undoing but we have learned loads since that game. At the World Cup we grabbed that underdog status. Now we're producing a different brand of rugby. We have so much confidence and we throw the ball around – it's going to be a great Test match."
Wales tried in vain to play that style of game at the Millennium Stadium but were left frustrated by a resilient, if desperately limited, Italian side and a pedantic referee in George Clancy.
Having threatened to blow Italy off the park with the opening bursts by their giant wings North and man-of-the-match Alex Cuthbert, Wales were pegged back, giving rise to frustration within their ranks at not finishing off this stop-start encounter far earlier than Jamie Roberts' 50th-minute try.
Wales can also look to themselves for going wide too early, before having done the hard work up front, and for the fifth game in a row, they were forced to spend10 minutes with only 14 men on the pitch. This time it was Leigh Halfpenny who was given a yellow card after a clumsy airborne challenge on the Italy captain, Sergio Parisse.
Ironically that has often been when Wales have produced their best rugby in each of their wins so far in this campaign, a legacy of their hard-edged coach Warren Gatland. The New Zealander may have inspired Wales to a Grand Slam in first three months in charge, in 2008, but has spent the last three years laying the foundations of a team capable of sustained success.
Hooker Matthew Rees said: "He [Gatland] put the fundamental blocks in place when he first came and I think he knew it would take a couple of years to get success. Gats is his own man and has his own way, which works. He's as honest as the day is long and that's what you want from a coach, You want a your coach to be honest with you whether right or wrong. He has a huge amount of experience and has a put together a good back room staff with him.
"The way we train is tough. In the past we haven't had strength and depth but you look at someone like Justin Tipuric. He's 22 years old but filled in for Sam Warburton so well. The biggest thing for us is work hard for each other and results will come."
Warburton is touch and go to recover from a knee injury in time to play against France but is understood to be improving daily. In his absence, Alun Wyn Jones turned poacher to steal possession in midfield and release the pace in the backline for the game's key try. Wales shipped the ball wide through the hand s of Mike Phillips, Halfpenny and Rhys Priestland before Roberts stepped on the gas from halfway for only his fifth try in 43 Wales appearances. It was the score the whole of Wales had been waiting for after a tense first half.
After emerging from Halfpenny's spell in the sin-bin three points to the good, Wales threw caution to the wind and were rewarded with a second try late on when Gethin Jenkins released Cuthbert with a quickly-taken penalty and the wing opened his legs to kick-start the countdown to Saturday.
Wales Points Italy
2 Tries 1
1/2 Conversions 0/0
4/4 Penalties 1/1
0/0 Drop goals 0/0
Phases of play
4/0 Scrums won/lost 3/0
13/1 Line-outs won/lost 13/3
13 Pens conceded 12
3 Mauls won 3
22 Ruck and drive 15
71 Ruck and pass 33
210 Passes completed 104
4 Line breaks 1
22 Possession kicked 25
1 Kicks to touch 4
62/1 Tackles made/missed 121/5
9 Offloads in tackle 4
12 Total errors made 11
96 In open play 51
38 In opponents' 22 10
29 At set-pieces 29
3 Turnovers won 3
Official match data delivered by:
Scorers: Wales: Tries Roberts, Cuthbert; Conversion Halfpenny; Penalties Halfpenny 3, Priestland.
Italy: Penalty Bergamasco.
Replacements: Wales K Owens (for Owens, 62), L Charteris (for AW Jones, 62), R Jones (for Faletau, 66), R Webb (for Phillips, 71) J Hook (for Halfpenny, 74), S Williams (for Davies, 69) .
Italy T D'Apice (for Ghiraldini, 54), F Staibano (for Cittadini, 51, Staibano for Lo Cicero, 72) M Bortolami (for Van Zyl, 51), R Barbieri (for Favaro, 63), T Botes (for Semenzato, 66), T Benvenuti (for Canale, 66).
Referee G Clancy (Ire)
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