By Rob Cole
It wasn’t always pretty, it was never perfect, but Wales’ 38-14 win over Italy was good enough to move them up into second place in the NatWest 6 Nations and put them on course for a runners-up finish next weekend.
Not that this championship has been about the money. It has been about putting more players under pressure and seeing if they are in line for a call-up for next year’s World Cup in Japan.
James Davies became the 18th new cap since last June and the Scarlets flanker proved he can hack it at the top end of the game with a more than useful performance. Back row, at least when everyone is fully fit, is certainly anarea in which Warren Gatland has real strength in depth.
The return to the starting XV of No 8 Taulupe Faletau highlighted just how much he has been missed and if he is joined by Ross Moriarty and Josh Navidi in the back row next Saturday then Wales should be able to meet fire with fire in the bruising battle up front against the French.
Having made 10 changes from the team that lost 37-27 in Dublin, Gatland can feel pleased that this was no ‘Georgia’, when a much changed side just scraped home in the autumn. What the performance lacked in polish it made up for in determination.
The bonus point was the minimum standard for the day and that came courtesy of George North’s second try in the 67th minute. Wales stormed into a 14 point lead inside six minutes thanks to tries from Hadleigh Parkes and the rampaging North and almost got a third when Gareth Davies latched onto a neat chip ahead by Steff Evans.
That try was ruled out by the TMO because Davies was marginally offside as he chased the kick. Just prior to that the impressive Italian full back Matteo Minozzi slipped past a feeble Liam Williams tackle to cross in the corner to get his side back into the contest.
To their credit the Italians had the better of possession and territory in the first half and probably deserved better from their work in the opening 40 minutes. As it was, Gareth Anscombe’s two conversions and a penalty allowed Wales to go into the break with a 17-7 lead.
They had to play for the first 10 minutes of the second half without the services of Williams, who was sent ot the sin-bin for a head-high tackle on Tomasso Allan behind his own try line. Gatland was obviously not impressed, because he sent on Leigh Halfpenny in place of him at the end of his 10 minutes on the touchline.
By then, though, Cory Hill had crashed over for the third try a mere three minutes after the restart and the bonus-point looked imminent and inevitable. But once again there was an annoying glitch for Gatland and his coaching team when scrum half Davies picked up a second yellow card for a deliberate knock-on.
It was the first time since 2015 against Ireland that Wales had picked up a yellow card in the Six Nations at home. Wales were down to 13 men for a full minute and had to defend a line-out five metres out from their line.
They somehow stole the ball and stayed strong, but the yellow cards certainly made life difficult for 20 minutes and broke up the side’s momentum. North then put the icing on the cake when he barged over for his second try to snatch the bonus-point before Justin Tupuric benefitted from a brilliant lob pass from man of the match Parkes to cross for the fifth and final Welsh try.
Mattia Bellini scuttled over for a consolation try for Italy in the end, but there is still a long, long way for them to go to become truly competitive at this level.