Halfpenny the shining light in dire affair
February 23, 2013
Wales' Leigh Halfpenny was the stand out player in the Stadio Olimpico © PA Photos
Wales have their second win in as many games and their eight-match losing run is an ever distancing memory, but the match in Rome was not even one for the rugby purists. It was a dire affair with the inclement conditions preventing any free-flowing play but it was Rob Howley's men who came away with a 26-9 victory.
Rain hammered the Eternal City all day and while there were hopes that the weather may abate by kick-off, if anything - it increased. It was clearly too much for the BBC's Andrew Cotter who surrendered his commentating duties after a few minutes - his co-pundit Jonathan Davies later revealed it was due to food poisoning.
But on the field, rather than counter attacking when given the opportunity, both teams opted to put boot to ball and clear their lines. It meant the match very rarely saw any attacking phase play with much of the Test decided by unforced errors and referee Romain Poite's interpretation of the scrum.
Wales won the majority of the penalties in that area of the game, but on occasions it could have quite easily gone in the Azzurri's favour. At times it seemed that Poite was flicking a figurative coin in his head. But while some of his decision-making was suspect, some of the Welsh performances were not. Adam Jones can come out of the game with his head held high. He put in a huge performance against Italian veteran Andrea Lo Cicero while Ryan Jones also shone in the pack with 16 tackles to his name.
It is doubtful how much interim coach Rob Howley would have learnt from the match with his backs rarely given the chance to shine but it is no coincidence that Wales stopped their alarming eight-match losing run when Ryan Jones returned the blindside berth for their win over France. He works well alongside Justin Tipuric while Toby Faletau metronomically hammers away at the gainline - it is a back-row with balance and it would take a very bold decision to break up their harmonious understanding to re-introduce Sam Warburton back into the mix.
But the Man of the Match was Leigh Halfpenny, and rightly so. He looks as good a bet as any for a spot on the British & Irish Lions tour in the summer and he put in another huge showing at fullback. The conditions meant that decision making was paramount and he very rarely put a foot wrong. He proved he is human by missing one kick at the posts but while he wears the No.15 shirt, he works so well alongside Mike Phillips and Dan Biggar that he is almost a third half-back.
© PA Photos
Their two tries came through Jonathan Davies, who profited on some awful Italian defence, and Alex Cuthbert. The latter could have scored a couple more had it not been for Gonzalo Camacho's impressive tap-tackle and some rabbit-in-the-headlamps handling.
From an Italian point of view, they were not helped by Poite but they very rarely showed any attacking intent that would have worried Wales. While Manoa Vosawai did his best to fill the void left by the suspended Sergio Parisse, a ban that is to the detriment of the competition, they did miss their talismanic skipper. Stand in captain Martin Castrogiovanni put in his usual passionate performance but his second-half sin-binning killed off any lingering hopes of an Italian fightback.
Other than Parisse's absence, the other pre-match headlines centred around Jacques Brunel's decision to start Kristopher Burton at fly-half instead of Luciano Orquera. Burton kicked badly and on the rare occasion when Italy were on the front-foot, he squandered possession with panicked attempts at drop-goals or slack handling. Orquera, although he struggled against Scotland, looks to be Italy's better long-term option at No.10.
Wales will now travel to Scotland in the next round of Six Nations action and while this was not a vintage performance, it was a game that showed Wales have re-found their resolve which will give Howley and the rest of his coaching staff some heart.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.