Wales must get better, Wales will get better

3:14pm Sunday 2nd February 2014

By Chris Kirwan

WALES’ defence of the Six Nations title didn’t get off to the most memorable start, and perhaps that’s a good thing.

The unforgettable encounters against Italy are the disasters; the 18-18 home draw of 2006 and the Stadio Flaminio losses of 2003 and 2007.

Can you recall in great detail the 33-10 success of 2010, the 47-8 win of 2008 or the 44-10 drubbing in 2004?

But do you remember Colin Charvis on the bench in Rome and Chris White’s timekeeping?

Italy are no longer the whipping boys and enjoyed home victories against France and Ireland last year.

That’s enough to prompt the frequent sounding of the post-match cliché klaxon – ‘there are no easy games in Test rugby’ – but a side gunning for a hat-trick of titles should not be turned over on their own patch by the Azzurri.

Warren Gatland’s side, who were overwhelming 1/25 favourites, were never really in danger of slipping to one of the biggest shocks in the history of the tournament on Saturday.

They may have been spluttering, they may have made far too many errors, they may have made a catalogue of poor decisions and they may have lacked patience in attack.

But they got off to a winning start and you can count on them being a heck of a lot better in Dublin on Saturday.

Hooker Richard Hibbard, now a Wales talisman, said before the game that the champions wanted to send a message to their title challengers.

“We want to go out, do our best and really get our show on the road and let everyone stand back and think 'Wales are here',” he said on Thursday.

They didn’t produce a performance that will have France, Ireland and England quaking in their boots but their past Six Nations history will earn the respect.

Wales head to Dublin on the back of a hugely frustrating performance but with their Grand Slam hopes alive, unlike in 2013.

They will be annoyed that they failed to close out the game in the second half and they will be cursing two tries by impressive Italy centre Michele Campagnaro that brought to an end a mean Six Nations defensive run that stretched back to opening day against Ireland last year.

But it’s done and dusted and their Six Nations fate will be decided by how they fare on their travels to Dublin and London, not the manner of their victory against Italy.

Sure, an avalanche of points would have been a help to their title ambitions but if Sergio Parisse’s men can be consistent – a big if – then they will not be blown away in 2014.

It was a flat atmosphere with an air of expectancy rather than the tension and vociferous backing of the 2013 title decider against England; there was no buzz of excitement on the train into Cardiff, nor on the streets nears the stadium, nor in the stands.

With Wales almost certain to win the attention focused on those trying to earn starting spots at the Aviva Stadium.

The figure of captain Sam Warburton loomed large on the Millennium Stadium bench leaving flankers Dan Lydiate and Justin Tipuric playing for one spot.

It will be a huge shock if the latter doesn’t don the 20 jersey in Dublin and fitness, or lack of it, will dictate if that is the only change by Gatland.

Scott Williams scored a try and looked pretty good but the Jamie Roberts-Jonathan Davies midfield combo is Wales’ best.

If the Clermont-bound centre, who returned from a pectoral injury for the Scarlets against London Irish on Saturday, is up to the demands of Test rugby then he’ll be thrown the 13 jersey.

The same goes for Gethin Jenkins who will get the nod ahead of in-form Bath loosehead Paul James if his knee gets the green light.

The deputies needed a ‘worldy’ to displace the boss’ favourites yet Wales’ individual performances ranged from the average to the pretty good.

They enjoyed a dream start when wing Alex Cuthbert profited from Angelo Esposito’s failure to gather a Rhys Priestland grubber close to his line.

And the hosts were in total command when Jamie Roberts, who showed what Wales had missed in the autumn with a powerful display, barged through midfield to put fellow centre Scott Williams under the sticks.

Wales headed to the changing rooms with a 17-3 lead yet things didn’t go to plan after the break thanks to a mixture of poor decision making and spirited Italian resistance.

Campagnaro bagged a brace – the first a kick and chase from turnover ball and the second an interception of Leigh Halfpenny’s loose pass – and the Azzurri were within a score.

But the Wales full-back, who showed he is human after all with an average display, sealed the win with six minutes to go by knocking over a penalty to make it 23-15.

Must do better, will do better.

Wales: L Halfpenny, A Cuthbert, S Williams, J Roberts, G North, R Priestland, M Phillips (R Webb 67), P James (R Bevington 78), R Hibbard (K Owens 67), A Jones (R Jones 64), L Charteris (A Coombs 57), AW Jones (captain), D Lydiate (S Warburton 64), J Tipuric, T Faletau.

Scorers: tries – A Cuthbert, S Williams; conversions – L Halfpenny (2); penalties – L Halfpenny (3)

Italy: L McLean, A Esposito, M Campagnaro, A Sgarbi, L Sarto (T Iannone 76), T Allan, E Gori (T Botes 65), M Rizzo (A De Marchi 55), L Ghiraldini (D Giazzon 57), M Castrogiovanni (L Cittadeni 68), Q Geldenhuys, M Bortolami (J Furno 68), A Zanni (M Bergamasco 72), M Bergamasco (F Minto 57), S Parisse (captain).

Scorers: tries – M Campagnaro (2); conversion – T Allan; penalty – T Allan

Referee: John Lacey (Ireland)

Attendance: 66,974

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