For the past year or so, the Wales side’s drop in form has been alarming. From a large number being certain shoe-ins for the Lions squad, only a handful had staked any real claim since the dizzy heights of last years’ Grand Slam. Full-back Leigh Halfpenny has been the standout contributor and he turned in another composed display against the Italians. While he has remained consistent, the two men who join him in the Welsh back three have been noticeably quiet. Neither George North nor Alex Cuthbert can disappear on the pitch due to their sheer size but their team-mates have done a great job of hiding them as they have been starved of both possession and chances. However, in consecutive weeks, both have had one chance each and finished with aplomb. Last time out, North took the plaudits but this time it was Cuthbert who broke the line and raced home. Their cause was aided with improved performances from leading names such as Mike Phillips, Dan Biggar and Adam Jones. All made significant contributions as they helped Wales win but they must remain consistent if they are to have any chance of retaining their Six Nations title. Wales have turned their fortunes around by grinding out victories rather than playing with any sort of swagger and panache, but winning is all that matters in this competition.
Interim head coach Rob Howley cannot have enjoyed his time in charge as Wales seemed to lurch from one crisis to another. However, they have slowly begun to turn things around and Howley kept faith with the side that beat France a fortnight ago. It meant no recall for captain Sam Warburton whose alarming loss of form has seen Justin Tipuric overtake him for both club and country. He also announced his side unexpectedly early and that decision was fully vindicated. Having the entire squad know their roles for the game, they could plan accordingly and while it wasn’t pretty, they ground out an important win. Italy are notoriously strong upfront but without the suspended Sergio Parisse, Wales dominated both the scrum and the breakdown and pulled away in the second half. With talented backs such as Jamie Roberts, North, Cuthbert and Halfpenny, Wales have a backline full of threat but they have so far been starved of opportunities. The one strike move Wales executed resulted in a try so they must look to build on this success and translate their undoubted promise onto the pitch and begin to play like they did in 2011/2012 when they dominated the Northern Hemisphere.
The Welsh injury crisis has been well documented alongside the Welsh player exodus to France. However, alongside the upturn in form there has been more good news as Gethin Jenkins has announced he is returning to Cardiff Blues from Toulon and lock Alun Wyn Jones made a return off the bench from his recent injury. Both players were an integral part of the Welsh Grand Slam sides in recent years and both pieces of news would have given the squad a massive lift. With fellow second row’s Bradley Davies and Luke Charteris ruled out of the Six Nations, the return of the ex-Lion Jones is a massive boost. The Welsh line out looks more competent as a result and with one of their main forward weapons back, the Welsh team is a much fiercer proposition. Wales have an outside chance of retaining their title and if they can overcome Scotland next time, then it could set up a title showdown with England in Cardiff.
Italy suffered a huge blow with the news that their No8 and captain Parisse was banned for 30 days for verbally abusing a referee in a domestic game last weekend. In a side short on quality to lose their talisman and one world-class individual was significant. They had followed up their amazing victory over France with a poor performance against Scotland, and without Parisse, their task of bouncing back was so much harder. Italy looked lost at times and despite having experienced internationals such as Martin Castrogiovanni on the pitch they never mounted any serious assault on the Wales try line. They dropped fly-half Luciano Orquera for Kristopher Burton as they sought to utilise the latter’s kicking ability, but if they wanted to employ a territorial game-plan, it was poorly executed. They never showed any attacking invention and their scrum, so often a strength of Italian rugby, was flattened by the dominant Welsh. Parisse’s presence both as a player and a leader was notably absent and it remains a shame that this modern great will never taste great success at international level. Italy remain frustratingly inconsistent, capable of beating anybody on their day but to show real signs of improvement they must start winning two or three games each year.