By Hannah Blackwell
The delight at winning for the first time in this year’s Six Nations was writ large all over the faces of the Wales players, but the man wearing the biggest smile of them all was without doubt the captain, Ken Owens.
What has appeared to be a poisoned chalice at times over the past five weeks had finally turned into something resembling hope for the recently installed leader.
After a wave of sheer relief at the end of a period in which he has been at the centre of the debate over financial meltdown in Welsh rugby and a possible strike, the weight of the world seemed to have lifted off his shoulders.
“Some people have said there hasn’t been any effort and that we haven’t been trying but we certainly have been trying over the last seven weeks,” said Owens in the wake of the 29-17 win over Italy in Rome. “We work very hard as a squad, as do the coaching group, and we’ve been building.
“Nobody gave us a chance here today but I’m just very happy – not with proving people wrong, because I don’t care what people say, but with the effort we’ve put in.
“I’m just very proud of the boys. We’ve had a good performance and a good win, but we know we’ve got to improve.”
Battle to Avoid the Wooden Spoon: Wales Still Threatened with Last Place in Six Nations 2023
A first Six Nations whitewash in 20 years may have been averted, but the battle to avoid being given the dreaded Wooden Spoon for the first time since 2007 isn’t over just yet.
Wales go to Paris on Saturday to complete their championship and could really do with another win.
“France will be a big challenge next week but it’s a lot easier going there after a victory,” added Owens.
“[Italy] are a dangerous team. They’ve got a style of play everyone has bought into, they move the ball well, which is very dangerous but can also get them into trouble.
“We just kept coming off the line and putting them under pressure, which we did for the majority of the first half.
“In the second half, we gave them chances. We lost the gain line on a couple of occasions and put ourselves under pressure.
“It’s been hard over the last seven weeks for many different reasons, with stuff on the field and stuff off the field.
A new coach has come in. But we’ve stuck at it and kept working hard.
“We’ve got an opportunity to go to Nice next week and just concentrate on the game against France.
“We need to build and improve, we know that, but it’s easier to do that after a victory given the momentum and the confidence we’ve created today.”