Headaches for Howley as clinical Wales show their character
THIS hugely satisfying win has given Wales caretaker boss Rob Howley a huge selection conundrum ahead of his side’s next adventure when they head to Edinburgh.
For Saturday’s performance was an impressive one against an Italy side who are, quite frankly, a horrible team to play in Rome.
Does he stick with the same XV who have dug him out of a hole twice in two powder-keg situations by winning ugly, and I mean ugly, in Paris and the Eternal City?
Is Alun Wyn Jones going to be given his number four jersey back for the showdown with Scotland in a fortnight at the expense of Newport Gwent Dragons’ Andrew Coombs, despite another fine performance?
Will Justin Tipuric, who has done nothing much if anything wrong, make way for Sam Warburton on the openside and the excellent Ryan Jones therefore probably lose the captaincy?
These are all interesting questions that are giving Howley that favourite sports hack cliché, the selection headache, one I have been unable to resist.
Make no mistake about it, Saturday’s match was a hideous affair, scarred by the heavy rain that mercilessly fell from the heavens, but there was a beauty about Wales’ clinical and ruthless execution.
Wales are often damned if they do and damned if they don’t.
They take apart a highly competent set of forwards in one of the toughest places to play and it gets brushed over. “It was only Italy” some condescendingly say.
They take almost all their chances and others choose to take potshots at the quality of the game, therefore demeaning Wales’ performance, with detractors labelling it the worst Six Nations match in history.
It is difficult to gauge a situation unless you are actually a witness to the event.
As the rain lashed down at the imposing and open- spaced Stadio Olimpico in the opening minutes of the second half, a hostile and passionate home crowd urging their heroes on, Italy looked as if they might take another Wales scalp to their trophy cabinet to go with those from 2003 and 2007.
That Wales turned the game around, staring down the barrel as they clung onto their slender 9-6 lead, and not only won it but won it with ease, speaks volumes about this side’s character.
And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you, as a German philosopher of some repute once wrote.
Wales couldn’t buy a win a few weeks ago but they deserve enormous praise for the way they have performed in their last two games.
And what did we learn from Saturday? I may get an invitation to join the satirist Craig Brown’s Institute for the Bleeding Obvious, but one of the most glaring is that Italy need Sergio Parisse banned like a hole in the head.
We discovered that Welshmen can actually scrummage again and that the beefy front row of Adam Jones (who was simply immense), Richard Hibbard and Gethin Jenkins (thankfully back to form) takes some stopping.
They had the formidable Italy front row in all sorts of bother and the game was effectively over once Azzurri skipper, the Leicester tighthead prop Martin Castrogiovanni, was sin-binned in the 58th minute for constant infringement at the scrum.
We also found out that Dan Biggar is the real deal, the fly-half once again vindicating Howley’s decision to stick with him at No 10 instead of James Hook.
The young Ospreys star enjoyed an excellent day.
Centre Jonathan Davies’ try came just seconds after Biggar had pulled off a try-saving tackle on Italy wing Giovambattista Venditti at the other end.
And it was his beautifully timed pass which allowed winger Alex Cuthbert through a huge gap for Wales’ well-executed second try.
Leigh Halfpenny was immense at full back, demonstrating once again that he is a shoo-in for the Lions’ tour of Australia this summer.
He kicked 16 points, missing just one shot on goal, nailing some tricky kicks to enhance his already sky-high stock.
Wales’ defence was also impressive, the visitors having now gone more than three hours without letting in a try.
England may have effectively won the Six Nations already with their victory over France hours later in Twickenham after Wales’ triumph in Rome.
But Howley’s men will go to Murrayfield brimming with confidence and confident of turning over the Scots for the third time in a row at the historic ground that has in the past been known as the “graveyard” of many a Welsh hope.
But not so in recent years, for they won there with ease in both 2009 and 2011, 26-13 and 24-6 respectively.
Prior to the weekend, Wales had never won four games away from home in Six Nations history, and not achieved a quartet of triumphs in the championship since 1979.
They have never won three times on the trot at Murrayfield, victory in two weeks rewriting the record books once again.