On 19ᵗʰ March 2022, Edoardo Padovani’s late try in Cardiff saw Italy win their first Six Nations game since 2015 and jump-started what went on to be a fantastic year for the Azzurri. Now, the two teams meet again, and though both find themselves without a win in their opening rounds, the Italian campaign has been full of positivity, while Warren Gatland’s return has so far been a story of rotation and worrying performances.
And after Italy’s early pressure was undone by an Adam Beard lineout seal, Owen Williams opened the scoring with an early penalty from their first visit to the Italian 22. Italy were without the injured Ange Capuozzo, and their early back line play was sloppy as a result, gifting Wales early possession and territory, and when Pierre Bruno was undone by the bounce of Rhys Webb’s box kick to the corner, Rio Dyer took advantage to collect the loose ball and go beneath the posts. The Azzurri’s physical defence helped them build into the game, and after a penalty allowed them to kick up the the 22, a dominant scrummage from the pack allowed Tomasso Allan to get them on the board with a penalty on the quarter hour. Growing in confidence, Italy looked to keep hold of the ball in the middle third of the pitch, but a costly fumble in contact from Allan allowed Wales to turn the ball over with an overlap on the blind side and when Liam Williams was given the ball, he forced his way through a couple of weak Italian tackles to reach the line. Allan’s mixed afternoon continues just minutes later as some great attacking play created a huge gap to send him into the Welsh 22, only for his pass back inside to Stephen Varney to be behind the scrum half, forcing him to check his run and take the contact when a better pass would have seen him score. Italy were soon back on the attack though, and after Garbisi arced through a gap around halfway, Italian support runners kept the ball alive, only for Juan Ignacio Brex to lose control as he was held stretching for the line, with referee Damon Murphy deciding that Owen Williams was not offside when he made the crucial tackle. The Azzurri continued to fin themselves undone by errors, and when a pair of penalties allowed Wales to kick up to the corner, the Welsh maul drove the Italians back over their line for a penalty try, with Lorenzo Cannone being sent to the bin for collapsing the maul. Despite being a man down, Italy continued to prod and find gaps in the visitor’s defence, and when a penalty at the end of the half allowed them to kick to the corner, Pierre Bruno was pinged for taking Liam Williams in the air as they competed for a Garbisi cross-kick under penalty advantage, allowing Wales to kick out for half time with a 3-22 lead.
The hosts needed to start the second half strong and did exactly that, with a strong carry from Tommaso Menoncello bringing the Azurri into the Welsh 22, and after phases of pressure, Allan’s deft chip over the defence was touched down by Seb Negri. Italy were attacking with positivity, but soon found themselves down a man again as Bruno was sent to the bin for a forearm to the neck of Wyn Jones, and should probably consider themselves lucky that the sanction was not worse. Wales tried to take immediate advantage only for Josh Adams to be held up in the corner, but the man advantage soon saw Wales secure a 4-try bonus point as Rhys Webb sniped through a gap and fed Taulupe Faletau. Italy refused to go into their shell, and after a sustained period of pressure in the 22, Pierre Bruno broke the line from close range and offloaded to send Brex over beneath the posts. Wales were tiring and the Italian attacks were continuing to cause trouble, but errors continued to cost them and they emerged with nothing as Wales hung on for a 17-29 victory.
While you can understand Kieran Crowley wanting to get as many of his best players on the park at the same time, the decision to play Tomasso Allan at 15 in place of the injured Ange Capuozzo may be one he regrets.
As talented a player as Allan is, both he and Garbisi are very much fly halves, capable of filling in as an emergency fullback, but not really someone who you would want there for the full 80 at Test level. And that lack of a true 15 really showed at times as the Azzurri struggled to deal with the Welsh kicking game, which gifted the visitors easy territory.
And I can’t help feel that Allan was somewhat in his own head and focusing on playing a different position too, as his performance was mixed to put it kindly. Usually such a reliable passer, today he was firing the ball everywhere but his teammate’s hands at times, with one hideous pass behind Stephen Varney costing his team a crucial 7 points, while a poor fumble also cost led to a try at the other end.
It’s no surprise that Allan’s best moment came when he was in the more natural first receiver position, putting a deft chip over the Welsh to allow Seb Negri to score.
With Capuozzo out for the tournament, Crowley has a big call to make for the final round. Does he look to stick with this team, or does he look to bring in a specialist 15, or even a specialist wing, which would allow the versatile Padovani to switch to the 15 shirt?
With the risk of a Wooden Spoon and falling toa lowest ever spot on the World Rugby rankings, Warren Gatland desperately needed some of his senior players to step up today. Thankfully for him, 2 of them did, in Rhys Webb and Adam Beard.
Earning his first tournament start since 2020, Webb was key to the Welsh victory. In his 55 minutes on the pitch, he controlled the game with some expert kicking that consistently allowed his chasers to get up and compete, while he also continued to cause trouble with his kicks to the corner, one bouncing fortuitously to gift Rio Dyer an early try, and another 50-22 allowing the pack to put immediate pressure back on the 7-man Italian pack just moments after the penalty try and Cannone’s yellow card. Meanwhile, his snipe through the gap also set up Faletau for the final try. The World Cup will likely see the end of his international career, but with performances like this, he has a chance of securing the 9 shirt that nobody has really made their own in recent years.
Meanwhile in the pack, Adam Beard was immense. The Italian lineout has been one of the best in the tournament, but Beard made a couple of crucial steals and also managed to force a maul turnover from another. Alun Wyn Jones cannot be trusted to put in the big performances at this level anymore, so to see Beard stepping up like this was hge considering he will likely be the senior member of any lock partnership moving forward. This is the moment where he needs to start putting in these performances on a weekly basis, stepping out from a legend’s shadow and becoming a leader himself.
If both can continue with performances of this quality, Wales can begin their turnaround and get back to being competitive.
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