Six Nations 2014: Wales 23-15 Italy
Wales 23 (17)
- Tries :
- Cuthbert, Williams
- Halfpenny (2)
- Halfpenny (3)
Italy 15 (3)
- Campagnaro (2)
Wales began their defence of the Six Nations crown with an unconvincing victory over Italy at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff.
Wales are bidding to become the first side to win the Championship outright three years in a row but they will have to improve greatly to achieve their goal.
Alex Cuthbert scored a try after only three minutes following a mistake by debutant Angelo Esposito and Scott Williams also crossed before the break.
But Italy were more than a match for the hosts after the restart, with centre Michele Campagnaro going over for two tries.
And the victory will at least be relief for Wales fans frustrated by the failure of any regional team to reach the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup and the ongoing rows between the regions and the Welsh Rugby Union.
But Wales will know that another performance of this nature against Ireland in Dublin next weekend could prove very damaging to their title hopes.
There will also be those who suggest the victorious British and Irish Lions tour last summer - nine of Wales' starting XV started the final Test against Australia - has left Gatland's side worryingly fatigued.
Wales were gifted their first try after only three minutes when Rhys Priestland kicked through and Esposito misjudged the bounce, and somehow allowed the ball to go past him, for Cuthbert to score in the corner.
Shortly after, George North went screaming down the left wing and opted to kick when he had support inside him and the visitors were able to clear their lines.
Tommaso Allan, playing in only his fourth Test, gave his side a foothold in the match with a penalty from right in front of the posts, after which Italy settled.
But with Taulupe Faletau, as he now wishes to be known, carrying well and captain Alun Wyn Jones bossing the line-out, the hosts continued to dictate.
Leigh Halfpenny extended Wales' lead with a penalty after 29 minutes, Alun Wyn Jones having been pushed at a line-out by Sergio Parisse.
Italy's travelling faithful thought Parisse had scored a try when he challenged for a kick with North and seized on the loose ball, but replays showed the Azzurri's inspirational skipper had knocked on.
Indeed, Italy came on strong and rattled the hosts in the closing stages of the first half, only for their optimism to be dowsed by a smart one-two between Welsh centres Williams and Jamie Roberts.
Williams made the initial break before feeding Roberts, who blasted through the Italian defence and slipped the ball back inside for Williams to score.
While Wales' 17-3 half-time lead was flattering, it was a much improved start from last year, when they found themselves 23-3 behind at the break against Ireland.
However, Italy came storming back after the restart. Priestland lost the ball in the tackle after a big tackle by Marco Bortolami, winning his 100th cap, and Campagnaro released Leonardo Sarto down the left wing.
Sarto kicked through and Campagnaro fell on the ball for a try, although replays suggested his initial pass to Sarto that sparked the move was forward.
Halfpenny missed a makeable penalty before the Welsh scrum was demolished, perhaps more evidence that British and Irish Lions stalwart Adam Jones has not adapted well to the new scrummaging laws, which have diluted the 'hit'.
Allan missed a makeable penalty that would have reduced the deficit to only six points but the atmosphere in the Millennium Stadium remained tense.
An infringement by Mauro Bergamasco at the breakdown released some pressure and Priestland very nearly went over for a try at the other end after shrugging off the first tackle and tip-toeing his way through the Italian defence.
But Italy kept coming, swarming all over Wales at the breakdown and forcing the hosts into some poor decision-making, including some particularly aimless kicking.
With Wales looking tired and Italy getting the better of them up front, Lions captain Sam Warburton came off the replacements' bench after 64 minutes, just before Halfpenny increased Wales' lead to 12 points.
But a couple of minutes later Halfpenny gifted man-of-the-match Campagnaro his second try when his attempted long pass was intercepted by the Treviso man.
Halfpenny allayed Welsh nerves with a late penalty, after which Italy were unable to threaten the Welsh line.
The result means Italy have now lost 16 straight away games in the tournament and have only one away victory since they joined in 2000.
But a bristling performance against Wales will give them renewed belief ahead of their visit to Paris next weekend.
15-Leigh Halfpenny, 14-Alex Cuthbert, 13-Scott Williams, 12-Jamie Roberts, 11-George North, 10-Rhys Priestland, 9-Mike Phillips (Rhys Webb 67).
1-Paul James (Ryan Bevington 78), 2-Richard Hibbard (Ken Owens 67), 3-Adam Jones (Rhodri Jones 64), 4-Luke Charteris (Andrew Coombs 57), 5-Alun Wyn Jones (capt), 6-Dan Lydiate (Sam Warburton 64), 7-Justin Tipuric, 8-Taulupe Faletau.
Unused replacements: James Hook, Liam Williams
Italy: 15-Luke McLean, 14-Angelo Esposito, 13-Michele Campagnaro, 12-Alberto Sgarbi, 11-Leonardo Sarto (Tommasso Iannone 76), 10-Tommaso Allan, 9-Edoardo Gori (Tobias Botes 65).
1-Michele Rizzo (Alberto De Marchi 55), 2-Leonardo Ghiraldini (Davide Giazzon 57), 3-Martin Castrogiovanni (Lorenzo Cittadini 68), 4-Quintin Geldenhuys, 5-Marco Bortolami (Joshua Furno 68), 6-Alessandro Zanni (Mauro Bergamasco 72, blood), 7-Mauro Bergamasco (Francesco Minto 57), 8-Sergio Parisse (capt).
Unused replacement: Luciano Orquera
Referee: John Lacey (Ireland)
Touch judges: Glen Jackson (New Zealand) & Francisco Pastrana (Argentina)
TV: Iain Ramage (Scotland)