Wales’ unlikeliest of Grand Slam campaigns continued on Saturday with their trip to Rome to face Italy. Wales secured the Triple Crown with a win over England 2 weeks ago and were ahead within minutes as Luca Bigi was pinged for being off his feet at the ruck, allow Dan Biggar to kick an early penalty. Bigi was penalised again just minutes later for not being back 10 before tackling Gareth Davies after the scrumhalf took a quick penalty in the Italian 22, leading to the hooker being sent to the bin. Wales took immediate advantage of the extra man, calling for a scrum and spreading the ball on first phase, with Dan Biggar’s wide pass putting Josh Adams outside his man to go over in the corner, with Biggar adding the extras. Wales were soon scoring again, with Josh Adams taking on 3 defenders to bring the ball up to the Italian try line. With the Azzurri defence caught narrow, Wales spread the ball wide to the other wing, where Louis Rees-Zammit took advantage of the overlap to send Taulupe Faletau over, Biggar just missing the conversion. The Italians were struggling to cope with the Welsh maul from the lineout and it proved costly for the next 2 tries as Ken Owens was driven over for number 3, while the maul set up the platform for Owens to break off and stretch for the line to secure the bonus point, with Biggar going 1 of 2 on these conversions. Wales had one more chance to stretch the lead before the break, but Dan Biggar’s pass to release Louis Rees-Zammit drifted forward and they were forced to settle for a 0-27 lead.
It didn’t take long for Wales to score once the game restarted, with Jonathan Davies running a straight line on first phase off a scrum, getting his arms through the tackle and offloading to George North to race in under the posts, giving Biggar an easy conversion. The game was long over as a contest, but the Italians were desperate not to be nilled, and Monty Ioane got them on the scoreboard by chasing his own chip into the Welsh 22 and holding strong through Liam Williams’ tackle, with Paolo Garbisi converting from the touchline. Wales almost had an immediate answer, but Josh Adams was a little to casual dotting down the ball as he rode a tackle in the corner, and it was adjudged that his foot had entered touch in goal before the ball was grounded. It looked like the Italians took a little hope from this, but any growing momentum was quickly dashed as they again found themselves down to 14, with replacement prop Marco Riccioni being sent to the bin for leading with the forearm. The penalty gave Wales possession and territory and after a series of phases close tot he Italian line, Callum Sheedy popped up on Josh Navidi’s shoulder to slip through for his first Test try, which he converted. As Wales took off their big names early to rest them ahead of next week’s Grand Slam decider with France, Italy started to get more possession in the Welsh half and create half-chances, but they could not find the finish and ended up being their own worst enemies, with Rees-Zammit intercepting Carlo Canna’s looped pass inside his own 22 and racing away to score untouched, Sheedy converting. Italy continued to press in the final minutes, but once again their accuracy failed them as they knocked on short of the line, bringing an end to a 7-48 loss.
After a somewhat promising start to the tournament, these last 2 matches have been embarrassing for Italy. They haven’t been accurate enough in attack, while their discipline has been absolutely awful, gifting teams possession, territory and points. as if that wasn’t bad enough, both of the last 2 games have seen 2 Italians get sent to the bin. It’s hard enough for them to stay competitive with 15 on the pitch, so spending so much time at a numerical disadvantage is killing them.
Of those 4 yellow cards, 2 were given to Luca Bigi, who as captain has been setting an awful example to his young team. The hooker has been a penalty machine all tournament, giving away territory and possession frequently with cheap infringements that were wholly unnecessary, while his 2 yellow cards have led to 4 tries while he has been getting a breather in the sin bin. As a captain, that just isn’t good enough – you wouldn’t see a player like Alun Wyn Jones getting pinged as cheaply or frequently. He may be one of the oldest and most experienced players in the squad, but that doesn’t necessarily make him captaincy material.
Maybe it is time that Franco Smith looked at other options for the captaincy. Carlo Canna provides similar experience and always leads by example even when being used as a crash ball option rather than a playmaker, while Seb Negri is another who is nailed on for a starting spot and always puts in 100%. Will we see a change in leadership next week? I doubt it, but Bigi will need a big – and clean – game.
I’ve lost count of how many times we’ve seen Wales change 13 or 14 men for this fixture and struggle for 50-60 minutes before finally pulling away at the end as they bring on all their top players. Well this time, as they finally look to put a run of results together, they made only a couple of changes, picking what could arguably be considered their best available XV.
This definitely ended up being the right move as the chemistry between the players was clear to see, and it helped Wales set a tempo early on that allowed them to dominate and secure the bonus point victory in just half an hour. Not only this, but it allowed players like Ken Owens and Alun Wyn Jones to get a decent run-out to stay match-ready, but also allowed them to get an early rest in the second half with next Saturday’s trip to Paris looming.
Could it be considered a missed opportunity to hand starts to a couple of different players, like Callum Sheedy and Uilisi Halaholo? Yes, but while these would have been the changes to make most sense, the starting midfield tri has very little gametime together, so the extra experience of playing together in a Test match could prove vital when the take on Les Bleus.
It’s hard to really draw any thoughts on players whose Lions chances were harmed by this performance, as nobody performed so badly that they stood out in such a clinical performance, not even Josh Adams, who will surely ensure the ball is grounded quicker next time, with plenty of rivals for the wing spots.
One of those rivals for the wing spot will surely be Louis Rees-Zammit. There is nothing scarier in rugby than a player with pace and the Gloucester wing has that in droves, highlighted by his run home after the intercept, during which he may have just left third gear. Meanwhile just inside him, George North‘s transition into an international 13 is going much better than I expected and that versatility may just earn him a spot in the squad as Warren Gatland knows him well.