By Paul Jones
Wales boss Warren Gatland hailed the excellence of scrum-half Rhys Webb after their 29-17 Guinness Six Nations victory over Italy at Stadio Olimpico.
Webb’s first Test start since October 2020, and first in the Six Nations since 2017, saw him create two tries and deservedly take player-of-the-match honours as Gatland’s team ended a run of three successive defeats in this season’s tournament.
“I thought he was excellent in the way his decision-making controlled the game,” said Gatland.
“He has not played at this level for a while so we were always thinking, ‘when did we need to make a change’ in terms of his legs and stuff.
“I thought his contribution was excellent and his decision-making in not trying to force things, not trying too hard. I thought it was a great contribution by him.”
Gatland’s team arrived in Rome with the wooden spoon a realistic prospect following successive defeats against Ireland, Scotland and England.
But Italy, who wasted a host of chances, now look destined to finish bottom of the Six Nations table for an 18th time as Wales climbed off the basement.
Early tries by wing Rio Dyer and full-back Liam Williams rewarded a dominant early display, then a penalty try underpinned an impressive first-half performance that saw Wales build a 19-point advantage.
No.8 Taulupe Faletau’s 50th-minute touchdown secured a bonus point while fly-half Owen Williams kicked a penalty and two conversions.
“We spoke before the game about being smart about how we wanted to play, but also being brave and taking those opportunities and moving the ball,” said Gatland.
“I thought we deserved to win against an Italy team that is obviously improving. They’re the most athletic Italian side we’ve faced.”
Gatland, meanwhile, said that replacement hooker Scott Baldwin could be unavailable for next weekend’s game against France after picking up a pectoral muscle injury, while Liam Williams suffered a shoulder knock and wing Josh Adams a slight knee issue.
Wales captain Ken Owens said: “We will grow from this. We’ve perhaps lacked a bit of confidence over the last few weeks, but I felt we were confident, we were patient and we problem-solved.
“We are trying to build something and we are building. It was a victory for the whole squad.”
Flanker Sebastian Negri and centre Juan Ignacio Brex touched down for the home side, with Tommy Allan slotting a penalty and two conversions, but Italy’s poor discipline saw two players sin-binned and Wales took the spoils despite the Azzurri dominating late on.
Italy head coach Kieran Crowley cut a frustrated figure following his team’s fourth successive Six Nations defeat of the season, believing his team should have been awarded a first-half penalty try.
“We fought our way back into it. We prepared well, we were in a good space, but it just didn’t go our way,” he said.
“Our execution wasn’t good enough and we let ourselves down in that area, which is something we need to look at.
“I couldn’t believe there was no penalty try awarded. It’s very clear there was a tackle made, so there is a tackle line and their No 10 tackled Brex. How they couldn’t come to the right decision I don’t know. There was a fair bit of frustration.
“If a penalty try had been given, it was 15-10 and the game changes. Anyway, we move on.”
Italy continued with an attacking approach that has lit up some of their performances this season, and Crowley added: “I am not going to die wondering.
Sometimes i get it wrong. I fancied Scotland to beat Wales, a couple of years ago. They rushed everything and made some errors but i sensed they were on a positive journey. I feel a similar situation is building in Italy’s development. They were unlucky today. #Progress
— Mark Ring (@MarkRing10) March 11, 2023
“Italy are where they are because of the way they have played over the last 10 years. If we keep doing the same thing we have always done, we will always be in the same place.
“Wales beat us today by box-kicking. They beat us in the aerial game. I know what sort of game I would rather play.”
Gatland extended his unbeaten run over the Italians to 13 games as his Welsh side finally broke their duck in this season’s Six Nations.
The home side came into the game seeking their first win in the Italian capital for a decade. More than that, this was supposed to be the moment they put their three near misses to date this season behind them.
They froze, Wales finally turned up and there was nothing left to chance or luck for Gatland’s charges as they gave him his first win since replacing Wayne Pivac. Crucially, it takes Wales off the bottom and gives the chance to avoid the dreaded ‘Wooden Spoon’.
Nothing went the way of the Azzurri on a warm and sunny day in Rome. They found themselves trailing 22-3 at half-time, played 20 minutes of the game with 14 men after a yellow card in each half and failed to convert the chances they created.
"It's quite emotional really, it's been hard, I've kept at it.."
— ITV Rugby (@ITVRugby) March 11, 2023
They made 720 metres after carving out a number of significant openings, but just couldn’t convert. They were the more creative side, but not the most clinical.
Wales started superbly, feisty, much quicker in the defensive line and looking far more determined than in their defeats to Ireland, Scotland and England. Owen Williams kicked a penalty in the fifth minute and then man of the match Webb bamboozled the home defenders with a superb box kick into their 22.
Dyer chased faithfully and when the ball bounced away from the grasp of Edoardo Padovani, Dyer gratefully accepted his gift and raced to the posts. Willimas added the extra and Wales were 10 points to the good in as many minutes.
Tomasso Allan kicked a penalty for the home side soon after, but two more Welsh tries before the break lifted the visitor’s confidence and left Italy with a mountain to climb in the second half.
Lam Williams somehow weaved his way to the line at the end of the opening quarter as he bounced off five would-be tacklers. Then a decision by Wales skipper Ken Owens to kick to the corner rather than take three points delivered in spades.
Wales won the line-put, the captain looked destined to score, but home No 8 Leandro Cannone hauled down the maul and Aussie referee Damon Murphy not only ordered a penalty try, but also sent Cannone to the sin-bin.
Italy were better in the second half, and added tries from Sebastien Negri and Juan-Ignacio Brex, but a trademark break from Webb at the base of a ruck 40 metres out sent him into the clear and enabled him to give Faletau a free run to the posts. Owen Williams converted and Wales were safe.