Ruddock handed the reins of a squad of thoroughbreds

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The Independent Online

This is just how Steve Hansen would have dreamt of signing off: with a flourish. Even for a coach who preaches that it is the performance that matters most, this was a game that his side dare not lose after a Six Nations' campaign that fluctuated from the sublime to the awful and back again with giddying effect.

This is just how Steve Hansen would have dreamt of signing off: with a flourish. Even for a coach who preaches that it is the performance that matters most, this was a game that his side dare not lose after a Six Nations' campaign that fluctuated from the sublime to the awful and back again with giddying effect.

There was little danger of anything other than a conclusive home victory yesterday, however, as soon as the captain, Colin Charvis, grabbed the game by the scruff off the neck in the early skirmishes, stopped Wales from moving laterally and put them firmly on the front foot. From then on, with the Italian pack a poor imitation of what we know they can be, it was one-way traffic, apart from 15 minutes at the start of the second half when Wales inexplicably lost their momentum.

Iestyn Harris was the catalyst to pull Wales out of that particular slumber with one of his wonderfully-weighted passes to release Gareth Cooper on a run that ended with Gareth Thomas breaking Ieuan Evans's Welsh try-scoring record. Thomas is in the form of his life and deserves the honour. As Wales's best player in this Six Nations - not to mention 34 tries from 77 appearances to his name - he deserves a place on next year's Lions tour.

So too does Harris, who was simply brilliant yesterday. He controlled the Welsh backline with his subtle offloads and beautifully-timed passing game as we always hoped he would. Why the coach chose to replace him yesterday when he was having the best match of his union career so far, only Hansen will know.

Outside Harris, the Williams boys were at their electrifying best, forming a fearsome back three with Thomas that should be set in stone for a few seasons. Inside, Stephen Jones was as assured as ever at No 10 while Martyn Williams was as outstanding on one flank as Charvis was on the other. To say there is trophy-winning potential in this Welsh side is an understatement. Indeed, had Wales sorted out the basics they could have had a very large say in this year's championship race. Once again, the set-pieces let Wales down and although they are a match for anyone in the world in the loose, it is impossible to win top-class Test matches if the scrum and line-out are not firing.

This glaring weakness has been a crying shame for Wales because I truly believe that they would have beaten both France and England this year if the forwards had anything near parity in the set-pieces. With a summer tour to Argentina approaching, Mike Ruddock will have a tough arena in which to eradicate these shortcomings. I would not be surprised if he looks outside Hansen's squad to bolster the pack.

Before then, however, Wales bid farewell to the New Zealander. The emotional standing ovation the Millennium Stadium gave him yesterday must prove to Hansen just what store the Principality holds in winning. It has been all very well Hansen telling the Welsh public to look five years down the line, but it is the here-and-now that really counts. First and foremost, international rugby coaches are paid to win international rugby matches and Ruddock must make that his primary aim.

To help him, along the way the side will be a side that has been given a hard, professional edge by Hansen who, together with his fitness coach, Andrew Hoare, has improved the conditioning of the squad no end. What's more, Wales are a close unit who play for each other and will undoubtedly grow in confidence.

I must admit I am still at a loss to explain why after five years of New Zealanders in charge - Graham Henry before Hansen - we are only now showing signs of development. I must also question why Hansen chose not to look outside his squad for reinforcements when they were needed and suggest if he had this tournament might have finished on a higher note.

Saying that, Hansen must be applauded for a number of the reforms he has brought to Welsh rugby, not least in his helping to drive through the new regional set-up. He can be justifiably proud that Wales gave him a farewell party to remember yesterday.

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