Wales restore a little credibility
March 20, 2010
Wales' James Hook exploits a hole in the Italian defnece © Getty Images
The opening game on Super Saturday may not have lived up to the billing but that will be of little concern to Wales coach Warren Gatland who saw his side restore some credibility to their campaign with an easy victory over a painfully limited Italy.
Desperately in need of a result to put some gloss on a faltering campaign and a performance to silence those critics who have suggested the side are going backwards, Wales delivered to a degree - but they were expected to do so. As a result their delight at returning to winning ways will be muted. The heat is off - for now.
The hosts were frustrated by another determined defensive effort from the Italians and their own errors in the opening period but were finally rewarded for their endeavour after the break with two tries from the ever-impressive James Hook and another from the prolific Shane Williams. The performance was far from perfect but was a huge step forward from their lifeless effort in Dublin last weekend. A rocket from Warren Gatland and co and the fear of being dragged into the wooden spoon mire appeared to spark the side into life and suddenly they were full of energy and no longer shackled by the sense of fear that seemed to envelope them at Croke Park.
This was a more controlled display from Wales - not the all-guns-blazing approach that cost them dear against France. They chose their opportunties well and refused to hit the panic button despite their failure to undo the Italians. That composure and belief that the scores would eventually come served them well.
Teenager Tom Prydie may have stolen all the headlines before the game as he prepared to become the youngest ever Welsh international but it was the more experienced heads of Stephen Jones and Hook that ensured they finished what has been a rollercoaster Championship on a high. Prydie looked a little worried ahead of kick off but he did not succumb to those nerves with a mature display that belied his 18 years. He played with an assurance from the first whistle, notably backing himself with a chip and chase early on, and put his muscular frame to good use in the loose. He showed enough to suggest his day in the sun will come - and soon.
But today it was all about his senior colleagues. Jones orchestrated proceedings and kicked 18 points on his way to the man of the match honour. It was his boot that kept the scoreboard ticking over as the Italians dug deep in the first half and it was his vision that eventually picked the tiring defence apart. However, Hook is deserving of equal praise for another eye-catching display and he was at the heart of most of what was good about the Welsh and kept the Azzurri guessing throughout.
Hook had two able allies in centre partner Jamie Roberts and scrum-half Mike Phillips with both bringing added dynamism. Phillips, making his first Wales start for 12 months, was particularly impressive as he powered his way into the heart of Italy's challenge and he showed he has lost none of his confrontational edge with a pointless spat with Italy's Mirco Bergamasco.
For Italy it was an oh-so-familiar story. Never wanting for physicality, they stood toe-to-toe with the hosts in the first half but were painfully short of ideas with the ball in hand. Stats do not always tell the whole story but the amount of tackles they were forced to make and the lack of passes they completed emphasise the constant battle coach Nick Mallett appears to face.
Fly-half Craig Gower shows glimpses of class but too often it is mixed in with aimless kicking and wasted opportunities. Indiscipline also cost them again with frustration getting the better of Mauro Bergamasco in the second half as Wales continued to hammer on the door. Defensively it was a huge improvement on the capitulation at the hands of France a week ago with the Italian scrum also resuming normal service but that plus will always be negated until they find a creative outlet.
Victory will grant Gatland some breathing room although a testing summer tour will no doubt offer more ammunition. But there remains plenty of work to be done before as is evident with just a dramatic victory over the Scots and and an expected home victory over the Italians to their name in this year's Championship. He has an abundance of talent at his disposal, with more on its way, and in such circumstances this kind of performance must be the norm - not the exception.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum.