Wales came to the Stadio Olimpico on Saturday looking for a record-equalling 11 consecutive victories. After being handed victory by the French last week, Warren Gatland chose to make 10 changes to his squad and it may have backfired as Braam Steyn scored the only try of the first half compared to 4 penalties from Dan Biggar, for a 7-12 halftime score. Wales improved again in the second half with tries from Josh Adams and Owen Watkin, while Edoardo Padovani scored late to make the final 5 minutes interesting but the Italians could not push on for a losing bonus point and Thomas Young had a try disallowed at the death, resulting in a 15-26 final score.

 

Too many changes

It’s a familiar tale for Wales under Warren Gatland: a match against a weaker opposition that everybody expects to be an easy victory result in a raft of changes to the starting lineup. The starting team put in a poor performance and struggle to pull away, leading to a bevy of early substitutions as the usual starters are forced to come on to save the game.

I felt that last week’s halfback partnership of Tomos Williams and Gareth Anscombe should have started again this week to get used to playing together at international level, but instead Dan Biggar was brought back in with Aled Davies at 9. Biggar did well off the tee but struggled to create anything in open play, while his kicking out of hand was poor at times with kicks going out on the full and one cross-kick to Josh Adams deep in the Wales half won by Padovani to put Wales under unnecessary pressure. Davies looked largely out of his depth and his hesitation at the back of the ruck and maul led to a couple of big turnovers for Italy.

Young and Josh Navidi did everything they could to win ball back and give the Welsh a platform to attack from, but the back line looked disjointed, likely due to the lack of time playing together as a unit, which limited the effectiveness of a dangerous back 3 (Josh Adams, Jonah Holmes and Liam Williams).

I understand wanting to get experience for the next players up and testing the depth of your squad, but this close to the World Cup it feels like there are some key positions that are not yet sorted and it means that the players are not playing together regularly enough to build up a chemistry. Not only that, but with bonus points now being part of the Six Nations, Wales have potentially put their position in the table at risk by failing to come away with 4 tries against Italy, which is something that I can see most teams doing.

Signs of improvement

Italy may be on a disappointing run of results in the Six Nations, but there are clear signs of improvement under Conor O’Shea. With so many influential players having retired over recent years, the Irishman has not just been working to improve the national team, but the whole of Italian Rugby. Things are clearly starting to improve in the domestic game with Benetton currently sitting 2ⁿᵈ in their Pro14 conference and 3 wins for Zebre, the U20s are on the up and bringing through talent for the national team, who are playing a much more attractive and well-rounded brand of rugby than they used to.

In the first half especially, their defence held strong and it was only moments of indiscipline that allowed Wales to get on the scoresheet. They scored the same number of tries as Wales, made 5 clean breaks to Wales’ 4 and on the day had a much more effective lineout. In recent years, they have found themselves falling off at the end of matches, the last 15 minutes was probably their best period of the game against Scotland last week and they held their own once again this week, with Padovani finishing off a well-worked try near the end.

There are still areas where they can improve, such as their discipline, their control of the game via the halfbacks, the scrum and their general depth of talent, but this is a team that is clearly going in the right direction and O’Shea should be commended for this.

Options in the back row

Arguably Italy’s star player in this game was openside flanker Braam Steyn. The South African-born Benetton flanker’s 24 metres from 12 runs was the most by an Italian forward, his 20 tackles was the most by any man on the pitch (next was Thomas Young – 15), he was one of the main targets in the lineout, won a couple of turnovers… oh and scored the opening try!

Jake Polledri’s injury has been a shame as it is a big loss to the Italian back row, but the back row of Steyn, Seb Negri and captain Sergio Parisse have played well and led by example. When Polledri is back from injury, I would love to see Conor O’Shea find a way to get all 4 of them into the starting XV, potentially by moving Negri into the second row to free up a spot for Polledri on the flank.

Will O’Shea do this, or will he choose to keep one of them as a impact player off the bench?

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