Wales 47 Italy 8: Byrne's hot streak stokes Welsh Grand Slam dream

Italian job leaves red army preparing advance on Dublin and Triple Crown
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Three down, two to go, although the suspicion has to be that Ireland and France will not be nearly as generous as Italy were yesterday. Still, they weren't about to bow their heads to that little truth in Cardiff last night, not after Wales's first victory over Italy in three years, which seems a mighty strange statistic to recount when looking at the damage on this scoreboard.

The visitors were blown away in a second half which Warren Gatland's men "won" 34-0. In the first period the Italians threatened to make a real contest of it, but within 90 seconds of the restart the dispute was effectively settled.

They love a fly-half in these parts and there was an outpouring of affection towards Andrea Masi. The trouble is he is Italian and is about as much a No 10 as Pavarotti was a size 6. It was his numbskulled pass that was intercepted, giving Tom Shanklin a clear passage to the line. The image of the centre joyfully scampering to the game's definitive score on the occasion of his 50th cap was the only excuse needed by the three-feathered brigade to start the party. Or, of course, the late wonder try by little Shane Williams. Not that this city of dreamers needed an excuse.

There is not another nation that anticipates a Grand Slam with quite the fervour of the Welsh and after this resounding win the entire Principality is counting down to Croke Park. Dublin should expect an explosion of red in two weeks' time.

They should also expect a challenge completely unrecognisable from the last time Wales ventured over the Irish Sea. Gatland has given them structure, discipline and a tempo that their opponents have failed to live with and confidence is back to the sky-high levels of their 2005 glory.

By the end yesterday they were playing sevens; running everything, trying everything. Williams is in his element in such open warfare and it was his 50-yard run in the 74th minute which earned all the plaudits. As he weaved, jinked and danced it seemed eons since a first half from which Italy could have easily taken an advantage.

Ryan Jones, the captain who pushed Williams, Lee Byrne and Stephen Jones for man-of-the-match honours, admitted the double-sided nature of the proceedings. "We always knew it was going to be tough in the first half," he said. "But at half-time we decided to tighten it up and after we started doing the basics well we earned the right to the white [try-line]."

It was tough early on and if Gonzalo Canale had accepted a dolly of a pass with the line at his mercy it would have been even tougher. Nick Mallett was shown punching a wall in anger as the centre wasted an opportunity carved out quite brilliantly by Masi and the wing Ezio Galon. It was as if the coach realised his side's chance was there and then.

That aberration by the Azzurri occurred in the 25th minute; 10 minutes before that Martin Castrogiovanni, the Leicester prop, had accepted a ghastly overthrow at the line-out by Matthew Rees to pile over. But Italy's full-back, Andrea Marcato, could not add the extras, and another miss, from a penalty, meant Wales led 6-5 thanks to two Jones penalties. It was time for Williams to announce his presence.

He did so on the half-hour by breaking through and then by tapping a quick penalty that almost took him under the posts. No matter; the ball was flung wide, with Gavin Henson missing out two defenders to put in the full-back, Byrne. Jones was faultless with the kick, as he was all afternoon, and Wales were on their way. Saying that, there was time for Marcato to grab three points back.

But then came Masi's moment of madness and then the tries arrived as quickly as Italian heads hit hands. The home cause was helped by a yellow card for Mirco Bergamasco, although by then Wales were away and should have been out of sight as their forwards made a mockery of pre-match concerns. Mike Phillips came on for the injured Dwayne Peel and was highly effective, although his hesitation in passing to Mark Jones was fatal and ruined what had otherwise been a breathtaking break.

But then, it didn't grasp the gasps as startlingly as Williams's twinkle-toed magnificence. In this form, he truly is the best sight in the Championship, as he proved by leaving three men for dead and another for a fool to emulate an Ospreys team-mate, Byrne, in scoring a second.

He is now one away from Gareth Thomas's try-scoring record of 40. Yet another thing to look forward to in Ireland. Yes, Wales will be deserted come Saturday week.

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