Wales have Grand Slam in sights after comfortable Italy win

Wales 24 Italy 3

Wales will go for RBS 6 Nations title and Grand Slam glory against France next Saturday after completing a successful Italian job at the Millennium Stadium.

The World Cup semi-finalists will effectively put one hand on Six Nations silverware tomorrow, given their vastly-superior points difference, if England beat Les Bleus in Paris.

But the real party is planned for seven days' time when Wales aim to be crowned kings of Europe.

Italy trailed by just six points at the interval - Leigh Halfpenny kicking three penalties to Mirco Bergamasco's one - and the Azzurri's admirable defensive resilience unexpectedly made Wales toil.

Wales were restricted to two tries - a 50th-minute solo effort from centre Jamie Roberts which Halfpenny converted, and wing Alex Cuthbert's late touchdown - while fly-half Rhys Priestland slotted a penalty after Halfpenny had been yellow-carded.

It was comfortable enough in the end, but Wales know they will need to considerably sharpen their attacking game when France come calling in seven days' time.

Scrum-half Mike Phillips and centre Jonathan Davies were Wales' stand-put performers, while flanker Dan Lydiate put in his usual punishing shift at the coalface, yet Italy deserve much of the credit from a contest that bristled but never burst into life.

The Azzurri could easily have rolled over and allowed Wales to cut loose, but their defensive organisation and spirit meant the cakewalk many had predicted for coach Warren Gatland's team did not materialise.

A second Six Nations title and Grand Slam of Gatland's four-year reign now awaits Wales, the previous one have been achieved against France in Cardiff.

Prop Gethin Jenkins captained Wales with Sam Warburton sidelined due to a knee injury, while Ospreys flanker Justin Tipuric made his first Test start and fit-again hooker Matthew Rees reclaimed the number two shirt almost a year after he last wore it.

Italy coach Jacques Brunel made seven changes from the side routed by Ireland in Dublin, yet they went into battle with not even their inspirational skipper Sergio Parisse believing there was much hope of an away win.

Wales' coaching team had stressed the need for a dominant opening 20 minutes, and immediate signs looked good when juggernaut wings George North and Cuthbert both enjoyed defence-splitting midfield runs.

But after missing a number of early tackles, Italy showed signs of settling under Parisse's assured leadership, and Wales were restricted to a long-range Halfpenny penalty that Bergamasco cancelled out just two minutes later.

The visitors, though, found themselves living off scraps of possession, and what meaningful ball they did secure was immediately kicked back to Wales by fly-half Kristopher Burton.

Wales had to be patient, but with their much-vaunted back division eager for work, chances were created at increasingly-regular intervals, suggesting that Italy's defence could only hold out for so long.

A second Halfpenny penalty - he reached 50 points in the tournament as a result - edged Wales back in front, and they continued their siege of Italy's 22.

But a combination of superb Italian defence and occasional over-eagerness by Welsh attackers meant the Azzurri restricted their opponents to one more Halfpenny penalty as a tryless opening period ended 9-3 in Wales' favour.

And the most telling statistic came via a punishing tackle-count that saw Italy make 76 challenges compared with Wales' 14.

Wales huffed and puffed for 10 minutes after the break, yet they finally breached Italy's defence when Rhys Priestland found Roberts, whose angled 40-metre run took him clear and over for a try that Halfpenny converted.

Halfpenny then spent 10 minutes off the field, sin-binned by referee George Clancy for an aerial challenge on Parisse when he had clearly gone for the ball and not the opposition player.

Wales, though, still had time to make their overwhelming territorial control and wealth of possession count as substitutes Ken Owens and Luke Charteris arrived for the final quarter.

But with the job done at 16-3 ahead, Gatland continued to sensibly use his substitutes, sending on Ryan Jones, Paul James, Twickenham try hero Scott Williams and scrum-half Rhys Webb for his Test debut.

Priestland slotted a 70th-minute penalty that left the Italians 16 points adrift, and then strong-running Cuthbert added a second try two minutes from time

Wales were good value for the win, yet it was very much a case of the calm before storm as a whole country begins whipping itself into a state of Grand Slam frenzy.

PA

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