Tom Hamilton at the Millennium Stadium
March 10, 2012
Leigh Halfpenny failed to cut loose like he has done in the past © Getty Images
It was 'mission impossible' according to Sergio Parisse prior to the clash at the Millennium Stadium and the history books will suggest he was right but Wales fell somewhere short of Jacques Brunel's pre-match gushing praise.
The whole of Cardiff was bouncing with the fervor associated with an imminent Grand Slam triumph before the match, but while the clean sweep is still on the menu Wales looked half-cooked against the Italians. They have already taken in the rugby cauldrons of Twickenham and the Aviva Stadium and come away with the scalps of England and Ireland earning plaudits on the way, but if this was the game where Wales were expected to showcase their clinical and easy-on-the-eye brand of rugby for a full 80 minutes, then they fell woefully short.
There is no doubt concerning the talent they have at their disposal but Wales in the first 50 minutes of the match looked like a team who had believed all the hype prior to the game and read too much into Parisse's assertion. Their refusal to kick two first-half penalties - which in Leigh Halfpenny's current form would've led to a host of houses being placed on the market as a wager - showed that perhaps they were playing to the crowd instead of the scoreboard.
But an arrogant swagger is not necessarily a bad thing. All great teams have to ooze a sense of confidence and this current Welsh crop is no different. And despite their poor showing in the first-half, there were glimpses of the sort of form associated with this era throughout the 80 minutes. Alex Cuthbert made more metres in the first-half than the entire Italian team put together and was well deserving of his try and the subsequent man of the match award while Toby Faletau echoed his stunning 2011 World Cup form with a host of rampaging bursts through the Italian defence.
And they now have a feeling of injustice behind them going into their final match with France. Referee George Clancy's decision to not penalise Mirco Bergamasco's knock-on in the 60th minute of the match was swiftly followed by Leigh Halfpenny being showed a yellow card for a reckless tackle on Parisse while the Azzurri skipper was still in the air. Clancy's call on Halfpenny's tackle was spot on, but Bergamasco's knock on was clear and something assistant Peter Allan should have picked up on.
We have all seen the way Wales rallied against France in the semi-final of the World Cup after Sam Warburton's sending off, and if they can harness that same sort of spirit after a frustrating outing against the Italians, then we are in for an epic clash next week.
The history books will show a 24-3 triumph for Wales with Roberts and Cuthbert's efforts the match-defining scores, but this game will have posed more questions than answers for Gatland. Their standout forward in this campaign has arguably been Ryan Jones and while the coach opted for Dan Lydiate at blindside - who was rightfully man of the match against England - the Ospreys' 30-year-old forward would have proved to have been a better foil for Justin Tipuric than Lydiate in the absence of skipper Warburton.
Toby Faletau excelled at No.8 © Getty Images
Indeed in the first-half, the Italian back-row was superb. Parisse was typically untouchable with his lieutenants Alessandro Zanni and Simone Favaro going about their business in a brutally efficient manner. The Italian's South African-born second-row pairing also stood up to the threat of Ian Evans and British & Irish Lion Alun Wyn Jones with aplomb.
But for Brunel - similar questions remain. Supporters of the Azzurri are yet to witness the work he did with France's backs for six years under Bernard Laporte but perhaps he is being overly ambitious with the brand of rugby he wants this current crop of players to produce. They are void of ambition, intelligence and nous at half-back with Kris Burton failing to produce any go-forward while Fabio Semenzato looked short of the impressive standard he showcased in last year's tournament.
Bergamasco - in his first match for the national side since the World Cup - seemed too concerned with his own personal battles than the team effort with Tommaso Benvenuti waiting in the wings on the bench. They are yet to harness the same brand of expansive rugby showcased by Treviso in the RaboDirect PRO12 and while in the past it seems harsh to criticise teams for failing to turn over the Italians, today was a match where Wales should have cut loose.
The contrast could now not be clearer. Wales will be back in Cardiff next weekend looking to secure their third Grand Slam in seven years while Italy are left to contend for the wooden spoon with Scotland. If they are defeated in that match then Brunel can plead that even more frequent excuse of 'transition' but with their back five possessing 279 caps compared to Wales' 119, is this a viable argument? The change in ethos he is trying to instill will take time, but if he wants to turn Italy into a top six side within four years then he is going to have to make some drastic changes - or lowering of expectation.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.