Thomas sparkles for wobbly Wales

Rugby Union Wales 31 Italy 26
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Rugby Union

STEVE BALE

reports from Cardiff Arms Park

Wales 31 Italy 26

What began as a thoroughly satisfactory introduction of the Welsh innocents degenerated from last night's promising beginnings so far that, in the end, Wales were less delighted than utterly relieved to have built their handsome early lead.

Given the callowness of the Welsh team and the justifiable insistence of the Italians that they will soon turn the Five Nations into Six, this was rightly reckoned to be a fixture of the utmost menace for Jonathan Humphreys' team.

But whether Wales were treating this with respect or disdain - it wasn't quite clear - they began at a pace which made their recent travails seem like a bad dream. Within 13 minutes they had scored 13 points.

It was unusual that Wales should actually make it count when they had the opportunity, but there, unbelievably, it was. The proceedings had scarcely begun when Arwel Thomas had his first penalty chance. Cool as you like, from 45 yards he kicked it - the gods being with him - it bounced over off the crossbar.

From the ensuing kick-off Diego Dominguez was awarded a penalty in reply, but he fell short from 40 yards. Instead, it was the debutant Thomas, who added his second, this one from a difficult angle. Better was to come when Wales did something with which they are unfamiliar by scoring a try, and a superb one at that. Hemi Taylor's drive off a scrum committed the Italian forwards and from the ruck Moore, Arwel Thomas and Wintle combined to send Leigh Davies powering into the midfield defence.

Davies kept the ball alive in the tackle and slipped the ball to Justin Thomas, who evaded some rather feeble tackling to sprint clear to the line.

Arwel Thomas converted but, with Wales having a territorial monopoly, missed for the first time with a 45-yard penalty that - the gods this time being against him - hit a post.

The combination of Welsh confidence and the poverty of Italy's response produced another Welsh try after half an hour. The build-up threatened little when the ball reached Ieuan Evans, who was confronted by four defenders.

But the prospect of the Six Nations was evidently becoming too much. More in hope than expectation, the former captain scythed past the lot with ridiculous ease to score and extend his Wales tries record to 24. Although Thomas missed the conversion, and an over-ambitious drop at goal, he extended the Welsh lead to 21 points with his third penalty on half- time.

Italy had contributed so little to the first half that it was a surprise when they strung more than two or three passes together at the start of the second. They were relieved at last to have some points on the board when Dominguez landed a penalty from 40 yards.

The revival was fleeting, however, as Massimo Ravazzolo critically dropped a kick in deep defence. From the scrum, Thomas, receiving from Moore, popped the ball to Evans on a sharp diagonal off the right wing to the posts for his 25th try, Thomas again converting.

It was almost as if Wales had decided that, with this try, the job was done. They stood off, allowing Italy to make an impression for the first time. Although Dominguez's second penalty seemed only a small revival it was indicative of how things had changed.

The Arms Park crowd can conduct themselves like their Twickenham counterparts and when Thomas aimed for goal with another penalty the next time Wales attacked it was to a rousing slow handclap. He kicked it even so, only for Dominguez to add his third when the Italians finally reached the Welsh 22.

That was only the start. Two runs by Paolo Vaccari split the Welsh defence so completely that when the Italian forwards came up in pursuit they scored tries, first by Franco Properzi and then Julian Gardner. With Dominguez's conversions and another penalty it gave Wales a panic-stricken finale.

Wales: Tries Evans 2, J Thomas; Conversions A Thomas 2; Penalties A Thomas 4. Italy: Tries Properzi, Gardner; Conversions Dominguez 2; Penalties Dominguez 4.

WALES: J Thomas; I Evans (both Llanelli), L Davies (Neath), M Wintle, W Proctor (both Llanelli); A Thomas (Bristol), A Moore; A Lewis, J Humphreys (all Cardiff, capt), J Davies, Gareth Llewellyn (both Neath), D Jones, E Lewis, H Taylor (all Cardiff), G Jones (Llanelli).

ITALY: M Ravazzolo; P Vaccari (both Calvisano), I Francescato, T Visentin (both Treviso), F Roseli (Roma); D Dominguez (Milan), A Troncon (Treviso); M Cuttitta (capt), C Orlandi, F Properzi-Curti (all Milan), M Giacheri (Treviso), P Pedroni (Milan), O Arancio (Catania), J Gardner (Treviso), A Sgorlon (San Dona). Replacement: M Bonomi (Milan) for Visentin, 64.

Referee: G Black (Ireland).

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