Wales keep Grand Slam dream alive
March 10, 2012
Italy's Sergio Parisse tackles Wales' Leigh Halfpenny
© Getty Images
Wales remain on course for a Grand Slam following a hard-fought 24-3 victory over a brave but limited Italy in their Six Nations clash at the Millennium Stadium.
Centre Jamie Roberts and winger Alex Cuthbert crossed for second half tries to keep Warren Gatland's side on course for their third Championship clean sweep in eight seasons with France the final visitors to Cardiff next weekend. Win-less Italy frustrated their hosts for much of the game with a battling defensive display but were unable to capitalise on a yellow card for Wales' Leigh Halfpenny midway through the second half of the contest.
Halfpenny kicked three first-half penalties and converted Roberts' score, with fly-half Rhys Priestland also adding a penalty of his own. Italy's only points came courtesy of a Mirco Bergamasco penalty early in the first half. Wales will now entertain France
Wales, who clinched the Triple Crown with victory over England last time out., made two changes in the pack with flanker Justin Tipuric handed his first Test start in place of injured skipper Sam Warburton, and fit-again hooker Matthew Rees recalled at the expense of Scarlets colleague Ken Owens in the front row. Prop Gethin Jenkins led the side in Warburton's absence. Italy coach Jacques Brunel made seven changes from their heavy defeat in Ireland including selecting Fabio Semenzato and Kris Burton instead of the injured Edoardo Gori and Tobias Botes at half-back. Goal-kicking wing Mirco Bergamasco returned after a shoulder injury.
Brimming with confidence, the hosts started purposefully with giant wings George North and Cuthbert making big inroads through weak Italian tackling in the opening moments. Halfpenny booted Wales into a 10th-minute lead their early dominance merited after some needless back chat from Italy captain Sergio Parisse had seen his side marched back 10 yards after an infringement, putting the penalty within range of the full-back's boot.
Bergamasco quickly responded in kind after skipper Jenkins was penalised for failing to bind at a scrum in his own 22. But the balance of the game was firmly in Wales' favour and Halfpenny put the hosts back in front at the end of the first quarter with a penalty which took him past the 50-point mark in this season's championship.
Wales spurned two shots at goal in order to go for the opening try but were unable to find the accuracy to take full advantage of their huge advantage in territory and possession, with Cuthbert and Halfpenny losing the ball in promising conditions. The ceaseless pressure continued but Italy's defence bravely refused to be breached as Roberts was hauled down short of the line by Alessandro Zanni after receiving a lovely offload from Toby Faletau. But their plight was leading to ill-discipline from the visitors and another penalty allowed Halfpenny to slot his third successful shot at goal as half-time approached. Italy then surprisingly turned down the chance to go for goal late in the half, kicking a penalty to touch which eventually came to nought.
Italy attempted to keep ball in hand at the start of the second stanza and there was a scare for Wales when a loose pass was hacked into their 22 but North mopped up the danger. And the first try finally arrived in the 50th minute as Alun-Wyn Jones swooped on a loose ball outside his own 22 to spark a superb Welsh counter.
The ball was worked through Mike Phillips, Halfpenny and Rhys Priestland to Jamie Roberts, who broke the defensive line to outpace the cover and race in from 60 metres to dot down for a score converted by Halfpenny.
It took a brilliant cover tackle from Burton to deny Cuthbert in the right corner moments later after a superb take from Tipuric on the other side of the field, with Wales threatening to cut loose.
Halfpenny was then sin-binned when referee George Clancy adjudged that he had taken Parisse out in the air, although replays suggested the punishment was harsh as the full-back looked to have simply competed for the ball.
Despite the numerical advantage Italy remained starved of possession and another strong Welsh scrum allowed Priestland to land a penalty, with Halfpenny still in the bin, and extend the lead to 19-3.
Twickenham hero Scott Williams, on as a replacement for the excellent Jon Davies, then broke clear down the left but once again they were frustrated by Italy's scramble defence. But Wales finally got their second try as Cuthbert made the most of tired Italian tackling to race clear and get over in the corner.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Huw Richards assesses where Wales are after a mixed Six Nations, with front row seats still very much available for the World Cup
John Mitchell lapped up the action on 'Sensational Saturday' - but warns not to expect a repeat come Rugby World Cup time later this year
Craig Dowd warns England, Ireland and Wales they should play to their strengths rather than those of the All Blacks and the Wallabies
Tom Hamilton runs the rule over just where the six countries stand ahead of the global gathering in September