Six Nations 2015: Three talking points as Wales thrash Italy
Sam Warburton's impressive form continues as Warren Gatland's men run riot in Rome in search of third title in four years
Super Sam on song
He may not be every Wales fan’s choice of captain or openside flanker, but there’s no denying that a fit and firing Sam Warburton is up there with the world’s best. Even Ospreys flanker Justin Tipuric, for so long an understudy to the Cardiff Blues man, would find it difficult to complain about being limited to a support role. He may not be the most vocal of captains or score enough tries, but Warburton continues to bring plenty to the party and leads by example, and he should be shortlisted for the player of the championship when it is announced next week. From his menacing work at the breakdown, which proved as fruitful against Italy as it has all tournament, to his monster ball-carrying ability, support running, and lineout work, Warburton put in another star turn as Wales ran riot in Rome, even getting in on the try-scoring fun with a superb support line off Tipuric and a 40-metre canter to the tryline. Crucially he is rediscovering his best form in the run up to the Rugby World Cup. Wales head coach Warren Gatland could be forgiven should he intervene and prevent his captain from playing another game for the Blues this season in a bid to keep him fit and fresh for their pool of death featuring Australia, England and Fiji. With the 26-year-old signed to a dual contract, and the Blues languishing down the Guinness PRO12 table with five rounds remaining, it would be a smart move that could be rewarding in September.
Sevens-up unlocks Welsh weaponry
The claims from down under that northern hemisphere rugby is boring was blown away on Super Saturday, started by a breathtaking second half from Wales. After a poor first half, it wasn’t on the cards, but the Welsh players threw the ball around and attacked at will as they ran in seven tries after the restart. Scrum-half Rhys Webb, a Rugby World Cup Sevens winner, and a quartet of backs brought up to play attractive rugby in West Wales were at the forefront of the onslaught. Former Scarlets wing George North rammed home an 11-minute hat-trick; Scarlets vice-captain Scott Williams punched holes in the Italian defence at will; Liam Williams switching to full-back after Leigh Halfpenny went off injured looked to have plenty of time and space to cruise around, while former Scarlets centre Jonathan Davies topped the ball-carrying stats and made plenty of ground. Despite not getting on the scoresheet, he was still very much a big part of what worked well for Wales. Dreadful Italian defending aided their cause, but it was a stark warning of just what the Wales backline are capable of under immense pressure to rack up points. It was at times scrappy, and a few errors prevented the 61-20 scoreline being greater, but that’s to be expected. Nobody would complain much if Wales put on a show like that every game, and there will be a perfect chance in the Rugby World Cup warm-ups this summer. The burning questions are why don’t they play like that every time, and will the coaches allow them to have that freedom to attack in a friendly or at the World Cup? You have to hope they will.
Halfpenny’s worrying head problems
Just how long Leigh Halfpenny remains one of rugby’s stars will depend a lot on if he can avoid getting his head in the wrong place when making tackles. The Toulon full-back has been outstanding for Wales and made many a try-saving tackle, but the 26-year-old can’t afford to keep getting whacked in the head. Racing Metro and Ireland talisman Johnny Sexton was ruled out for 12 weeks after four concussions in 12 months by a French neurosurgeon back in November and there is a danger for Wales that a similar fate could be enforced on their points machine with the Rugby World Cup looming. Halfpenny left the field on a stretcher and taken to hospital after a neck injury from a tackle during Wales’ 14-12 defeat to Australia in December 2012 and, while MRI scans showed no nerve damage, he admitted a month later that he has to stop tackling with his head. In the heat of battle late in the first half in Rome, Halfpenny’s warning escaped him as his head, again on the wrong side, connected with the knee of Fiji-born Italian back-row forward Samuela Vunisa. He may be fearless on the field, but if his tackle technique isn’t fixed soon, Halfpenny could be forced to join former Cardiff Blues team-mate Rory Watts-Jones in having to retire early. It would be a tragedy to lose a world class player in such circumstances. Given how meticulous he is in honing his goal-kicking, Halfpenny needs to divert a lot of time to his tackle before it is too late.