Though confirmation may come only today, Wales could have lost two of their most valuable players on the eve of the World Cup. Never mind the close nature of this scrappy affair, the loss of Leigh Halfpenny and Rhys Webb would be a body blow for any side, let alone one with limited playing resources. Both sustained leg injuries, the more serious one apparently to Webb, whose scream of pain caused match officials to wince.
The fear of every World Cup coach is that they will lose a key player during the build-up to the tournament and Warren Gatland endured that sinking feeling as Webb beat his hand in agony against the Millennium Stadium turf. In challenging for a high ball, the scrum half, player of the season for his country during 2014-15, fell awkwardly and his left ankle took the strain. He was carried off after a seven-minute delay and received painkillers before being taken to Cardiff’s Heath Hospital for in-depth assessment.
The presumption must be, with Wales due to begin their World Cup campaign against Uruguay in a fortnight, that Webb will play no part. The only comfort for Wales is that his replacement will surely be Mike Phillips, who brings with him the experience of 99 international appearances and the hurt of having been omitted from the original 31-man squad. Should Halfpenny be similarly affected, all Wales will pray for the recovery of Liam Williams from a damaged foot. He is due to recommence training this week.
There was little in the first half to encourage Wales, after the heights of victory in Dublin a week earlier. Never mind the horrid injury to Webb, they could impose their game nowhere against an Italy side far more competitive than in defeat in Edinburgh. The best of it for Gatland was the sight of George North scoring his first international try since his concussion issues and the all-round class on display at centre from Scott Williams.
As early as the third minute, Sergio Parisse – absent from Italy’s first two warm-up games against Scotland – intercepted Alex Cuthbert’s pass and made 70 metres before Williams tackled him at the corner. Yet the No 8 retained the ball, his forwards came in and Leonardo Sarto reached over for the try. Italy were effectively playing with 14 men at that stage as Luca Morisi received treatment before being replaced by Luke McLean but they added to the advantage with Tommaso Allan’s close-range penalty.
Williams was the architect of Wales’s first try, first with an outside break well supported by Webb and the home side went patiently through the phases before Williams, going left, flung a long pass which allowed North to trot over the line. Had Cory Allen been as patient, Wales would have taken the lead but the Blues centre opted to charge for the line, ignoring two well-placed supporters and the chance of a try was lost.
The Welsh lineout was sound enough but the scrum was consistently penalised and though Halfpenny pulled his side level with a 23-metre penalty, a chapter of accidents allowed Italy to reclaim the lead before the interval. Taulupe Faletau knocked on the restart after Halfpenny’s successful kick and a late tckle by Dominic Day gave Allan another penalty. North was pulled down just short of a second try but yet again, Wales were penalised at the scrum five metres out.
It did not become much better in the third quarter. True, Halfpenny kicked two penalties, the second of which carried him past 500 points for Wales, to push his side ahead but a nonchalant dropped goal by Carlo Canna, Italy’s replacement fly-half, restored equality. A foolish obstruction by Edoardo Gori gave Halfpenny his fourth penalty and a splendid breakout by Ross Moriarty, on for the strangely inconsistent Taulupe Faletau, led to another penalty chance for the full back but a minute later, Halfpenny became the second player to be carried off.
He hurt his right leg pushing off to take a bouncing ball, with no other player involved, and were he to miss any part of the World Cup, it would be a huge blow. Halfpenny’s proven points-scoring ability, as well as his attacking gifts, cannot easily be replaced. Wales were still recovering from his departure when, in time added on, Gugliemo Palazanni scored in the corner to reduce the deficit to four.
Wales: L Halfpenny (M Morgan, 70); A Cuthbert (Morgan, 21-27), C Allen, S Williams, G North; D Biggar, R Webb (G Davies, 27); G Jenkins (P James, 54), K Owens (K Dacey, 69), T Francis (A Jarvis, 63), J Ball (L Charteris, 54), D Day,J King, S Warburton (capt), T Faletau (R Moriarty, 63).
Italy: A Masi; L Sarto, L Morisi (L McLean, 3), G Garcia (G Palazanni, 66), G Venditti; T Allan (C Canna, 59), E Gori; M Rizzo (M Aguero, 59), L Ghiraldini (A Manici, 76), M Castrogiovanni (L Cittadini, 41), Q Geldenhuys, J Furno, A Zanni, F Minto, S Parisse (capt; V Bernabo, 66).
Referee: G Clancy (Ireland)Reuse content