Wales produce great escape
March 14, 2009
Wales' Tom Shanklin touches down for a crucial score at the Stadio Flaminio in Rome
© Getty Images
Wales battled past a much-improved Italy 20-15 in their Six Nations clash at the Stadio Flaminio in Rome to keep their title hopes alive.
Tries from winger Shane Williams and replacement centre Tom Shanklin and 10 points from the boot of fly-half James Hook were just enough on what was a very uncomfortable day for the defending champions who flirted with another embarrassing defeat at the hands of the Azzurri having trailed 9-7 at half-time.
Italy produced by far their best - if somewhat limited - performance of the Championship with captain Sergio Parisse producing a man of the match display and fullback Andrea Marcato kicking all their points courtesy of five penalties.
It was a new-look Wales side with coach Warren Gatland making nine changes to his starting line-up in a statement of faith in his wider squad. Lock Alun Wyn Jones took on the captaincy while Gavin Henson started for the first time in a year alongside Jamie Roberts in a long-awaited centre partnership that should have started against South Africa in the autumn only for injuries to intervene.
Italy coach Nick Mallett, whose side were rock-bottom of the Championship table after conceding 100 points and 12 tries in losing their opening three Six Nations games, resisted the urge to ring the changes with prop Martin Castrogiovanni dropped to the bench in favour of Carlos Nieto and wing Giulio Rubini given a first start on the wing.
Wales, with a points difference inferior by 23 to tournament leaders Ireland coming into the game, knew they had to close that gap ahead of a potential title decider against the Grand Slam-chasing Irish in Cardiff next Saturday but were also wary of the fact they had suffered at the hands of Italy in Rome on their previous visits in 2007 and 2003.
Italy began strongly under the blue Roman skies and were rewarded for their early endeavours when fullback Andrea Marcato slotted a penalty to give his side the lead.
Wales, looking to bounce back from their Grand Slam-wrecking defeat to France last time out, struggled to find any rhythm in the opening exchanges and were guilty of kicking too much ball away. Italy's own effective aerial bombardment restricted Wales' chances to counter and as a result the hosts grew in confidence. But they were frustrated by some good defence from Wales who battled their way back into the game - only for fly-half James Hook to push a simple penalty chance wide of the posts midway through the half.
They were soon back pressing though and it was the prolific Shane Williams who steadied the ship with the opening try of the game. Alun Wyn Jones and Henson combined well in the shadow of the posts before the centre fed Williams who stepped the last defender to dot down for his 46th Test try for Wales. Hook found his range with the conversion attempt to hammer home the advantage.
To their credit the hosts rallied and splintered the Wales scrum on the half hour to set up Marcato's second successful penalty. Alun Wyn Jones was guilty of a sloppy error moments later taking out Italy scrum-half Paul Griffen and his side were duly punished as Marcato kicked his third penalty to put Italy ahead once again.
Wales' lack of confidence almost cost them as the half drew to a close as Hook and Mark Jones made a hash of clearing up a kick speculative kick ahead. But Jones recovered just in time to prevent either Alessandro Zanni or Rubini touching down for the try. Italy looked to turn the screw at the following 5m scrum but the dominant Azzurri pack were unable to force the opening and a wayward drop goal attempt from fly-half Luke McLean brought the half to a close.
Aware that his side's fortunes rested with his pack, Mallett introduced prop Martin Castrogiovanni and lock Carlo Antonio Del Fava after the break in an attempt to bolster his forwards. And his side continued to play with confidence, leading to Marcato's fourth penalty that gave the home side a five point lead. Gatland responded by throwing Ryan Jones, Gethin Jenkins and Matthew Rees into the fray in the hope of revitalising his side.
Italy lock Marco Bortolami handed Wales a chance to immediately close the gap with an infringement at a ruck and Hook gladly nailed the kick. Winger Matteo Pratichetti conceded another midway through the half as Wales stepped up the pressure and Hook slotted the kick to give Wales a narrow lead as the game entered the final quarter.
Fatigue soon hit the Italians' work-rate but they were handed a lifeline when replacement Tom Shanklin was penalised at a ruck and Marcato made no mistake to set up an exciting final ten minutes. But Shanklin made amends from the re-start with Hook drawing the defence before putting him into a gap for the decisive score. Hook's conversion meant Italy needed a try to draw level but they were unable to conjure an unlikely score.
With a significant improvement in all departments, Italy finally joined the Championship in the fourth round of the competition but are still staring at the Wooden Spoon. However, they will take heart from this performance ahead of France's visit to Rome next weekend. Meanwhile, Wales must now await the result of Ireland's clash with Scotland later today before knowing what task awaits them next weekend if they are to successfully defend their title.
Italy: Marcato, Rubini, Canale, M. Bergamasco, Pratichetti, McLean, Griffen, Perugini, Ghiraldini, Nieto, Dellape, Bortolami, Zanni, M. Bergamasco, Parisse.
Replacements: Orquera for Marcato (75), Canavosio for Griffen (66), Castrogiovanni for Nieto (50), Del Fava for Dellape (50), Sole for Bortolami (64). Not Used: Sbaraglini, Quartaroli.
Wales: Byrne, M. Jones, Roberts, Henson, Williams, Hook, Phillips, Yapp, Bennett, R. Thomas, Charteris, A. Jones, J. Thomas, D. Jones, Powell.
Replacements: Shanklin for Byrne (68), S. Jones for Hook (75), Rees for Bennett (57), Jenkins, R. Jones, Davies for Charteris (66). Not Used: Fury.
Man of the Match: Sergio Parisse (Italy)
Referee: Alan Lewis (Ireland)
Assistant referees: Dave Pearson (England), David Changleng (Scotland)