Six Nations 2014: Wales edge to eight-point victory over plucky Italy
Wales 23 Italy 15: Warren Gatland's men begin the defence of their crown with an uncovincing win at Millennium Stadium
Leigh Halfpenny kicked 13 points as Wales survived a second-half scare in the opening match of the 2014 Six Nations to win 23-15 against a spirited Italy.
Two tries from 20-year-old centre Michele Campagnaro cancelled out first-half efforts from Alex Cuthbert and Scott Williams, with Halfpenny’s superior kicking the difference on the scoreboard as Wales bid for a third successive title.
Wales got off to the best start in their quest for Six Nations history as debutant Italian winger Angelo Esposito missed a pick up from a Rhys Priestland kick forward into the 22 after four minutes, allowing Cardiff Blues wing Alex Cuthbert to steal in behind the debutant and dot down in the corner for an easy score.
Club team-mate Halfpenny further punished the Azzurri by curling in the difficult conversion.
Former Scotland U20 fly-half Tomasso Allan scored Italy’s first points on 13 minutes after Dan Lydiate was penalised for not rolling away, slotting over from 20 metres.
Wales had an opportunity to extend their lead, but after running the ball through the hands to the left wing, captain Alun Wyn Jones was bundled into touch just three metres from the tryline.
Last year’s man-of-the-season Leigh Halfpenny extended Wales’ lead with a penalty on 28 minutes after Wyn Jones was taken out in the lineout.
Sergio Parisse dotted down after collecting a high kick forward to the right flank, but the Italian captain had knocked on and, despite indicating it wasn’t a try, referee John Lacey needed the TMO to confirm the infringement.
With the Italian backs winning turnovers and pressuring the Wales half-backs, the signs were there early in the match that the favourites for the wooden spoon weren’t in Cardiff to lay down and give Wales an easy ride.
But Italy’s backline was at fault for Wales’ second try as Williams, the in-form Scarlets centre, converted a good move after Jamie Roberts smashed his way through the Italian defence three minutes before the break. Halfpenny added the extras to give the hosts a 17-3 lead at the interval.
The second half began in controversial fashion as the officials colluded to award Italy a try inside the opening two minutes. Priestland lost the ball in contact from a crunching tackle by Marco Bortolami.
On the front foot, Italy went through the hands to the left flank with Campagnaro scampering after a punt down the wing and won the foot race to dot down.
His pass to wing Leonardo Sarto at the start of the move out wide looked clearly forward on replays, but the TMO confirmed the try, much to the chagrin of the passionate Welsh crowd with ill-feeling still resonating as Allan missed the conversion.
Italy were growing in confidence and continuing to frustrate the Welsh forwards at the scrum and forcing Wales into a misguided kicking game.
Gatland responded by emptying the bench with Dan Lydiate, Adam Jones and Richard Hibbard replaced by Sam Warburton, Rhodri Jones and Ken Owens.
Halfpenny and Allan then both saw penalty efforts go wide before the Welsh full-back attempted a long pass out wide with 11 minutes to go which was intercepted by the rampaging Campagnaro who ran away uncontested to dot down under the posts to cap a man of the match performance.
Allan made up for his earlier misses to slot the conversion to give the visitors a sniff of a win with the score at 20-15, but further indiscipline gave Halfpenny a chance to seal the victory, which he did with a low kick to make it a two score game with just six minutes left on the clock.
Wales tightened up to keep the visitors at bay in the closing stages to grind out a win they only just deserved.
George North and Priestland left try-scoring chances on the pitch and Wales head to Ireland for next Saturday’s clash with Ireland with plenty of questions over the fitness and mental ability of a squad dominated by last summer’s successful British and Irish Lions tourists.
Wales: Halfpenny; Cuthbert, S Williams, Roberts, North; Priestland, Philips; James, Hibbard, A Jones, Charteris, AW Jones (captain), Lydiate, Tipuric, Faletau.
Replacements: Coombs (for Charteris) 57, Warburton (for Lydiate) 64, R Jones (for A Jones) 64, Owens (for Hibbard) 67, Webb (for Philipps) 67, Bevington (for James) 78.
Italy: McLean; Esposito, Campagnaro, Sgarbi, Sarto; Allan, Gori; Rizzo, Ghiraldini, Castrogiovanni, Geldenhuys, Bortolami, Zanni, Mauro Bergamasco, Parisse (captain).
Replacements: De Marchi (for Rizzo) 55, Giazzon (for Ghiraldini) 57, Minto (for Bergamasco) 57, Botes (for Gori) 65, Cittadini (for Castrogiovanni), Furno (for Bortolami) 67, Iannone (for Sarto) 76.
Tries: Cuthbert, S Williams; Campagnaro (2)
Pens: Halfpenny (3); Allan
Cons: Halfpenny (2); Allan
Man of the Match: Michele Campagnaro (Italy)