Wales 18 Italy 18: Wales escape the humiliation but not the indignity

Boos ring out as the Grand Slammers lose their way, their shape and almost the game
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The Independent Online

At least the boys in red didn't lose, went the official line, but if those who still laughably claim to have any control whatsoever on the anarchic mess called Welsh rugby think this was any consolation whatsoever to a booing Millennium Stadium crowd, then they should think again. Never has a draw felt more like a defeat.

And that is no wonder, for after Italy gained their first point on the road in the Six Nations there is now a real chance that Wales could become the first team in the long history of the old competition to follow up a Grand Slam with a wooden spoon. For that to happen, Italy need to beat Scotland and Wales need to lose to France. On this evidence, invest more money on the latter than the former.

Frank Hadden will be as unconcerned as Bernard Laporte, that's for sure, when they view the tape of a game that began brightly enough but ended in a fog of the most mind-numbing mediocrity. The Italian coach, Pierre Berbizier, might have been turning the air Azzurri blue as he reflected on the four missed penalties and two missed drop goals that ultimately cost his team victory, but that was only one part of a quite baffling story.

The most telling part said that in the opening 40 minutes, Wales were in a different stratosphere to their rivals and should have been out of sight. How the scoreboard could read 15-15 at the end of one of the most one-sided halves of rugby the game might ever witness had everybody in the ground pinching themselves in disbelief. Not least 15 Italians, who had just escaped the most vivid of nightmares.

So how did they survive it intact? Well, apart from a handful of criminally sloppy errors on Wales's behalf and Dwayne Peel's exit with a shoulder injury after nine minutes, it was mostly down to two bizarre tries. The first came in the 17th minute when the full-back, Ezio Galon, galloped on to the end of sump-tuous movement across the line to do the necessaries before, inexplicably, failing to put the ball down in time. Eric Darrière, the French video referee, took a full five minutes before telling his gobsmacked countryman Joel Jutge: "Look, I can't get a clear angle from the television, but you better give a try anyway."

Later, one of the remote cameras definitely did give a "clear angle" and showed this most scientific of verdicts to be erroneous; Galon's trailing leg was over the line. No matter; Italy might have been suddenly at the races after being threatened with being run off their feet, but with Wales seemingly cutting through their back line at will, surely such an anomaly would soon be redressed?

Think again, because despite Stephen Jones ducking through the Italian defence in the 28th minute to provide a partner for Mark Jones's aesthetic score 20 minutes earlier, an injury-time interception from Pablo Canavosio evened up this most uneven of battles. Watching the Calvi-sano wing ecstatically scampering 80 yards after gratefully accepting the ridiculously telegraphed pass of Matthew Watkins was the surreal image such a half deserved.

It was a shame for Watkins, as the centre - together with Stephen Jones - had hitherto been one of the star performers and there were others just as blatantly culpable. Martyn Williams, for one, will long be twitching at the try he left out there when fatally hesitating in the 25th minute to do one thing or the other - either put his head down and drive for the line or feed it to Ian Gough outside him. It was to be the botch-up of the day.

There were plenty of contenders, mind you, especially in the second half, when ineptitude spread like bird flu. The Welsh pack were the first caught flapping, losing line-outs with impunity and taking eight leaves of absence from the contact areas. If Italy had possessed a Diego Dominguez to take advan-tage, their first away victory in the tournament would have been assured. Alas, they had Ramiro Pez and although the No 10 managed to locate the uprights in the 49th minute - after the Wales full-back, Lee Byrne, had been lucky not to be sent to the sin-bin for an absurdly late tackle on the impressive Mirco Bergamasco - two other missed penalties were a more accurate impression of his profligacy.

In fact, as the Italy energy banks flashed up their usual "empty" signs on the hour mark, and as the Welsh pack finally remembered they were supposed to go forward, it seemed as if it would all finish in tears yet again for Berbizier's men. But Stephen Jones's cool 40-metre penalty with 20 minutes remaining was all the home side could offer, despite all the possession and despite all their supposed creativity. It was only left for the Welsh faithful to boo their Grand Slam heroes off. Unseemly, yes, against the spirit of rugby, maybe, but in truth it was all Wales deserved.

Wales: L Byrne (Llanelli Scarlets); M Jones (Scarlets), H Luscombe (Newport-Gwent Dragons), M Watkins (Scarlets), S Williams (Ospreys); S Jones (Clermont Auvergne), D Peel (Scarlets); D Jones (Ospreys), R Thomas (Cardiff Blues), A Jones (Ospreys), I Gough (Dragons), R Sidoli (Blues), C Charvis (Newcastle), M Owen (Dragons, capt), M Williams (Blues). Replacements: M Phillips (Blues) for Peel, 9; A Popham (Scarlets) for Charvis, 52; G Jenkins (Blues) for D Jones, 58; M Davies (Gloucester) for Thomas, 76; J Thomas (Ospreys) for Sidoli, 80.

Italy: E Galon (Overmach Parma); P Canavosio (Calvisano), G Canale (Clermont Auvergne), Mi Bergamasco (Stade Français), L Nitoglia (Calvisano); R Pez (Perpignan), P Griffen (Calvisano); S Perugini (Calvisano), C Festuccia (Gran Parma), C Nieto (Viadana), S Dellape (Agen), M Bortolami (Narbonne, capt), S Parisse (Stade Français), J Sole (Viadana), M Zaffiri (Calvisano). Replacements: M Castrogiovanni (Calvisano) for Nieto, 29; C Stoica (Montpellier) for Canavosio, 47; C Del Fava (Bourgoin) for Dellape, 50; F Ongaro (Treviso) for Festuccia, 71; A Zanni (Calvisano) for Parisse, 78; A Lo Cicero (L'Aquila) for Zaffiri, 80.

Referee: J Jutge (France).