The first game of Round 4 saw top visit bottom, as struggling Italy looked to find a way to halt the Welsh assault on the Six Nations, which, even before this game happened, looked impossible. However, given Wales have been helped by two games where their opponents were down to 14 men, and one where some incorrect decisions went for them, it would be interesting to see if they could win a game in normal circumstances. As it turned out, they can, and can win well.
Beginning with Italy, we have praised them at times this year for seemingly turning a corner and looking a better side, giving us all hope that, in the near future, they will be back winning games again. However, this game gave us a stark reminder of how far behind everyone else they still are, and how they are still their own worst enemies at times. They seemed happy to give Wales a helping hand in the early stages, conceding simple penalties for going off their feet in rucks, and this is the sort of thing they need to stamp out of their performances. They are still a young and inexperienced side, but these are basic mistakes to make.
Their defence in particular was being stretched by Wales, and this is where they have tended to leave gaps, and Wales’ second try from Taulupe Faletau was clear example of what happens when they do leave these gaps open. The Azzurri were down to 14 men at this point, admittedly, with captain and hooker Luca Bigi sin-binned early on, but the underlining point is that Italy simply couldn’t hold Wales back, allowing them to take points every time they got into a good area of the field, with rolling mauls, penalties and open spaces all contributing. Italy head coach Franco Smith was visibly unhappy with his team’s performance in the first half, and that was no surprise given what we saw on the field.
When it came to their attacking play, they had to settle for small gains with the ball, rather than finding a gap, but never once looked like scoring at all, and that was the key thing. Their back row in particular wanted to push forward into the Welsh defence as much as possible, with Sebastian Negri and Johan Meyer their key threats here, but none of this worked, so it was obvious that Italy had to change their playing style and find new ways to break Wales down.
In the second half, they did make some changes, with their lineout throws going directly over the top to the backs, particularly Negri, meaning they could avoid mauls and get the ball moving forward quicker. With Wales’ heavy forwards in the lineout, this did work in part for Italy, giving them a few more options.
Winger Monty Ioane has been one of their key threats in this tournament so far, but was not involved in much of the first half. However, in the second half, he was brought into the game even more, and was the one who broke through to score Italy’s first try of the game as a result. This definitely gave Italy more confidence following this, and they had renewed belief in what they were doing, but still struggled to make their opportunities count, with handling errors constantly blighting their progress.
One final thing to mention is that centre Juan Ignacio Brex is going to be a key player for them in the near future. We mentioned previously how much of an impact he has made on the Italian team this year, but, like everyone else around him, he struggles to turn good moments into points. One example of this was when he made a tackle, but knocked the ball on in the process of doing so, thereby giving the ball back to Wales in unfortunate circumstances. He was always on the front foot, however, and brings an anticipation of where the ball will go and awareness of where to be to try and win it off the opponents, which is something they have been missing for a while.
Overall, Italy will know this was not a good overall performance, even if it was against the table-toppers, but there were still a few positives for them to take out of the game. However, they still need to cut out the basic errors if they want to become an even better team.
When it comes to Wales, we mentioned how they didn’t need to push too hard for opportunities in the early stages, but they were also defending well early on too. Interestingly, they tended not to engage with the Italian attackers when Italy had the ball, instead shepherding them around the pitch and allowing Italy to make the mistakes that they did. These were clever tactics, and showed how Wales had done their homework and come with a plan for how to play this match.
In attack, they kept the pace up when moving the ball around, piling pressure on Italy at the back, and this gave them plenty of opportunities. Italy were just about holding out, but looked very shaky at the back, so there were plenty of spaces for Wales to exploit. They were almost looking to counter-attack at times, with full-back Liam Williams continually running forward with the ball from the back, finding players like winger Louis Rees-Zammit, and this again gave Wales pace and power in attack, and the ability to exploit the gaps in the Italian back line as often as possible.
In the second half, they made some good changes to keep their energy levels up, with centre Willis Halaholo helping to shore up their back line and give them extra power, whilst fly-half Callum Sheedy added more creativity and speed in the midfield, increasing the threat they carried there. This was especially important in the final quarter of the game, with Wales looking a little tired at that point, and needing fresh legs to help them, even though they were so far ahead on the scoreboard.
One thing that they have got at the moment is pace in their back line. Their seventh try came from Rees-Zammit intercepting a poor pass from Italy’s Carlo Canna, before running the length of the field to score. Italy were forced to try things as the game went on, but the execution wasn’t there, and this was what Wales fed off after half-time. This try was a perfect demonstration of how much threat Wales carry when moving the ball forward, getting the likes of Rees-Zammit, Josh Adams and George North involved in the game, and this is something that has massively improved since last year, and is a key reason why they have gone from Six Nations strugglers to probable Grand Slam and title winners.
MAN OF THE MATCH:
There were many excellent performances in this game, with Ken Owens scoring twice and creating gaps for his team at every opportunity, always asking questions of the Italian defence. However, Liam Williams was exceptional throughout, defending well, stopping Italy getting through on the wing, kicking well, and did everything a good full-back needs to. It was a complete performance from him.
Italy’s final game of the tournament sees them travel to Edinburgh, where they will play Scotland at Murrayfield in the first of three games next Saturday. Wales, meanwhile, will look to secure the Grand Slam and the title when they go to Paris to face France in the evening kick-off later on.