Six Nations 2014: Wales ragged and fatigued in win over Italy

By Ben DirsBBC Sport
Highlights: Wales 23-15 Italy

Wales' Six Nations opener was supposed to provide some welcome respite from the political upheaval currently rending the sport in the principality.

But the provision of respite was very far from the minds of the visiting Italians.

Warren Gatland was full of positives after his side's unconvincing 23-15 victory at the Millennium Stadium. What modern head coach isn't, whatever the result?

But the uncomfortable truth is that Wales looked horribly ragged at times and worryingly fatigued at the final whistle.

Gatland's men are bidding to become the first side to win three outright titles in a row since the tournament's inception in 1883. This game illustrated why it has never been done.

With one debutant in their backline and three more with three caps or fewer, Italy were expected by some to be torn to shreds by Wales's vaunted three-quarters.

But led by 20-year-old Treviso centre Michele Campagnaro, who scored two tries and won the man-of-the-match award, Italy made Wales look clueless behind the scrum at times, not to mention lacking in respect.

Gatland admitted as much, suggesting his side were guilty of attacking from too deep and failing to earn the right to go wide, to use the current parlance. Backs coach Rob Howley called some of the decision-making "bizarre".

It had all started so well, however, largely thanks to the misfortune of wing Angelo Esposito.

It was the 20-year-old who misjudged Rhys Priestland's kick through and allowed the marauding Alex Cuthbert to touch down after only three minutes.

It was Esposito's first act in international rugby, poor lad.

But after some typically bold charges by George North in the early stages, Wales then withered.

There was one moment of class in the first half, Scott Williams going over for a try after a neat interchange with fellow centre Jamie Roberts. But Wales were rather flattered by the 17-3 half-time scoreline.

Both Gatland and his captain Alun Wyn Jones claimed Wales played with too much ambition after the break.

If this is the case, it is proof that ambition and creativity are not the same thing, because Wales hardly created anything.

With number eight and captain Sergio Parisse to the fore, Italy's forwards were more than a match for their Welsh equivalents in the second half.

This will be of greater concern to Gatland than Campagnaro's brace, the first of which came from a turnover and forward pass, the second from an interception.

Number eight Taulupe Faletau aside, the Welsh pack tired alarmingly, while the set-piece was decidedly creaky at times, especially down the stretch.

Gatland had said before the game that tight-head Adam Jones was under pressure for his place from Rhodri Jones but afterwards he sprung to the defence of the Ospreys man, who has admitted having problems adapting to new scrummaging laws that have diluted the importance of the 'hit'.

"He hasn't had a lot of rugby," said Gatland.

"But he has been a stalwart of the Welsh pack for a long period, we've relied on him enormously and when he hasn't played there have always been question marks about the scrum."

Even so, this raises the possibility that his Scarlets namesake might start against Ireland loose-head Cian Healy in Dublin next weekend.

But it wasn't only Jones who blew a gasket as Italy came on strong.

And the nature of Wales' second-half performance will have people wondering whether last summer's victorious Lions tour has indeed diminished them.

Gatland, who also coached the Lions, believes the only thing the trip down under proved was how fit his boys were in comparison to the other tourists.

But nine of Wales' starting line-up against Italy also started the final Test against Australia. That's a lot of players with a lot of rugby behind them in the past year and a half - and something has to give at some point.

Wales, we are often told, are notoriously slow starters.

A win, we are often told, is a win. Italy, we are often told, are a banana skin. All of which might be true.

But it is also true that if Wales play again in Dublin as they did against Italy, there will be no rewriting of Six Nations history.

Gatland reacted testily when it was suggested that the Irish media will be looking to turn next Saturday's game into a grudge match between him and Brian O'Driscoll, the legendary Ireland centre he chose to drop for the deciding Lions Test rather than make him captain.

"Why do people want to dredge that up again?" said Gatland.

"Brian's moved on, I've moved on. If people want to make an issue out of it, it's lazy journalism."

But on this occasion Gatland might just benefit from a bit of lazy journalism.

There is nothing like a bit of needle to focus the mind, and the minds of those around you.