Mark of distinction carries Wales home

Italy 15 Wales 27
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The Independent Online

The stonemason can down tools for another week at least, for Welsh rugby has no immediate need of a gravestone. It is not in the rudest of health either, mind you; Alessandro Troncon's big-hearted Italian team dominated the first half of this do-or-die Pool D qualifier to such a ridiculous extent that Wales were forced to make well over 100 tackles at the rate of almost three a minute. Yet the Red Dragonhood turned round 11 points to the good, and the cruelty of that contradiction broke the Azzurri in mind and spirit.

If the Italians were to win this game and effectively guarantee themselves a place in the World Cup knock-out phase for the first time in five attempts, they had to ensure that the early exchanges went their way, and decisively so. They knew fatigue would be a factor; while they were playing their fourth match in 15 days, the Welsh had been granted the luxury of a full week's recovery time between fixtures. Without a cushion of at least a dozen points going into the last quarter, their chances of surviving the game's denouement were every bit as slim as Rhys Williams's stick-insect frame.

That cushion was not forthcoming, and as a result Italy will board the first plane back to Rome. A ninth-minute try by the excellent Mark Jones was not too damaging to their cause - Rima Wakarua, a New Zealand-reared outside-half who moved to Italy in 1999, was sufficiently accurate with his goal-kicking to keep his team in the hunt - but a second score by Sonny Parker in first-half stoppage time bordered on the terminal.

To make matters worse, it could easily have been avoided. When Wakarua, perhaps overconscious of his own defensive frailties, attempted an ambitious interception as Wales moved the ball left from a line-out, he succeeded only in leaving a hole the size of a small Australian state in the Azzurri back line. Ceri Sweeney needed no second invitation to wield the stiletto, and when Martyn Williams found Iestyn Harris with a smart pass, the overlap was too inviting for words.

Even though Wakarua made partial amends with a couple of penalties in the early stages of the second half, the Welsh did not look anywhere near as frazzled as they had in the 15 minutes or so before Parker's try. Slowly, the exhaustion factor undermined the Italian effort - their scrum, never entirely convincing despite the efforts of the outstanding Andrea Lo Cicero, started to move creakily from side to side like an old bedstead; their loose forwards, led by the remarkable Sergio Parisse, stopped covering the field at pace and began to move as though they were wading through wet cement.

Five minutes into the final quarter, Wales struck the final blow when the aggressive Dafydd Jones, restricted to a tackling brief for much of the first hour, latched on to the ball at the rear of a venomous driving maul and celebrated with gusto as his fellow forwards spewed him over the line with barely an Italian in view. Harris, who had a scratchy day with his kicking, then added the extras to remove even the remotest threat of meaningful Azzurri retaliation.

Quite how Wales will approach their final pool match, against a rampant New Zealand team in Sydney a week today, is anyone's guess: the only certainty is that they are dreading it. Duncan Jones, the best of their tight forwards, was taken off the field on a stretcher after only 29 minutes of this contest, and if he fails to recover from what appeared to be a serious leg injury - the Welsh back-room team fear a fracture - the consequences could be dire.

There will also be some concern at the lack of firepower among the back-rowers. The Italian combin- ation of Parisse, Andrea De Rossi and Aaron Persico was comfortably the more forceful unit before the tiredness kicked in, so the prospect of confronting the Reuben Thornes, Marty Holahs and Richie McCaws of this world is nothing short of bloodcurdling.

Still, Wales were perfectly entitled to feel satisfied with their efforts in yesterday's high-pressure situation. They showed more wit and imagination than the Italians, whose muscle-bound strategies were reminiscent of the Springboks at their most Jurassic, and in Mark Jones they boasted a game-breaker of considerable potency.

His early try was wholly characteristic of an all-round performance that might easily have earned him the man-of-the-match bubbly (not that these professional types are allowed even a sip of anything adult while the tournament is in progress). His brave tackle on De Rossi as the Italian flanker attempted one of his barnstorming runs from deep earned Wales an attacking scrum, and when the ball was moved left at speed, his finish was as precise as it was unfussy.

Afterwards, Steve Hansen flatly rejected a suggestion that he had just survived his most difficult week as the Welsh national coach. "Mate, they're all tough," he said.

They are not about to get easier, either; the All Blacks, almost certainly followed by dear old England. That is a hard road in anyone's language, but nowhere near as hard as the road back to Cardiff would have been.

Now they have made it through to the last eight, they can lighten up and enjoy themselves, if only for a day or so. Who knows? Hansen may even crack open a bottle, as well as a smile.

Italy 15 Wales 27
Pens: Wakarua 5; Tries: M Jones, Parker, Daffyd Jones
Cons: Harris 3
Pens: Harris 2

Half-time: 9-20 Attendance: 24,600

Italy: G Canale (F Mazzariol, 76); N Mazzucato, C Stoica, A Masi, D Dallan; R Wakarua, A Troncon (capt); A Lo Cicero (S Perugini, 72), F Ongaro (C Festuccia, 47), L Castrogiovanni, C Checchinato (M Phillips, 51), S Dellape (C Bezzi, 73), A De Rossi (Mauro Bergamasco 59), S Parisse, A Persico.

Wales: K Morgan (R Williams, 25); G Thomas, S Parker (D Peel, 77), I Harris, M Jones; C Sweeney (S Jones, 51), D Peel (G Cooper, 57); Duncan Jones (G Jenkins, 29), R McBryde, A Jones, B Cockbain (J Thomas, 76), G Llewellyn (R Sidoli, 49), Daffyd Jones, C Charvis (capt), M Williams.

Referee: A Cole (Australia).