It has been a year to forget for new Wales coach Wayne Pivac with the heir to Warren Gatland’s throne losing seven out of his opening 10 Test matches.
While the current pandemic hasn’t helped, Pivac has failed to live up to the standards set by his predecessor with the halcyon days of winning Six Nations Grand Slams and reaching World Cup semi-finals feeling like a lifetime ago.
The former Auckland policeman was appointed on the back of a Guinness Pro12 title-winning season while coaching at the Scarlets with their success based on a swashbuckling brand of rugby reminiscent of Wales’ 2005 Grand Slam-winning campaign.
But the excitement of a more expansive style of rugby hasn’t not come to fruition yet with the set-piece solidity and aggressive defence which typified the Gatland and Shaun Edwards era having gone missing.
With his long-time friend Byron Hayward having been shown the door last month in a dramatic U-turn, the defence has at least improved under the guidance of Wales great Gethin Jenkins.
But the fact of the matter is Wales’s regression has been nothing short of worrying since Gatland left to return to New Zealand.
Pivac will insist he’s capped 11 new players in 2020 with many of Gatland’s stalwarts such as Alun Wyn Jones, Leigh Halfpenny and Ken Owens falling the wrong side of 30.
But Test match rugby is all about results and one senses the 2021 Six Nations will be crucial if Pivac is to lead Wales to the 2023 World Cup. He may have a contract until rugby’s global event in France, but a break-out clause at the conclusion of 2021 means his position is far from secure.
Wales will face tougher opponents in the Six Nations, but they showed glimpses of how good they could be under Pivac with some wonderful running rugby sandwiched between some very sloppy stuff against Italy.
They scored five tries in total with Kieran Hardy, Sam Parry, Gareth Davies, George North and Justin Tipuric touching down while Callum Sheedy kicked 13 points. Marco Zanon and Johan Meyer scored Italy’s tries with eight points coming from the boot of Paolo Garbisi.
Wales were forced into a late change with Scarlets centre Johnny Williams forced to withdraw due to a hamstring injury with veteran midfielder Jonathan Davies taking his place.
The hosts started positively with a well-worked try which showed a glimpse of what could be achieved under Pivac. A beautiful tip-pass from the impressive Taulupe Faletau sent Tipuric soaring through a gap.
The Ospreys openside sped 30 yards into Italy’s 22 before dummying and eventually releasing Hardy who touched down for his first Test try with Sheedy converting. Wales were comfortable in the first quarter and they claimed their second try when Parry powered his way over from short range.
But Wales got sloppy conceding numerous needless penalties to give the Azzurri field position. Garbisi opened Italy’s account from the kicking tee before a well-judged dink through by Carlo Canna saw Zanon gather and score.
Despite Wales’ early dominance Italy weren’t going to go quietly even ending the first-half as the stronger side. Following Zanon’s try Italy counter attacked from deep in their own 22 with a 50-metre break from Welsh-born scrum-half Stephen Varney ending with Josh Adams getting sent to the sin bin for not releasing the tackler at the breakdown.
Garbisi knocked over the subsequent penalty meaning Wales turned around with a slender 14-13 lead at the interval.
Wales started the second half well as Sheedy extended their lead with a straightforward penalty. But as has often been the case over the past couple of months Wales lost their shape far too easily when put under pressure.
Italy needed no second invitation as they spread the ball wide with athletic flanker Meyer burning Louis Rees-Zammit on the outside to score at the far right-hand corner.
But Wales finally clicked back into gear as Tipuric found Faletau with a gorgeous offload with the No 8 feeding replacement scrum-half Gareth Davies who ran in unopposed from 25 metres out. Davies’ try took some pressure off Wales’ shoulders as they tried hard to express themselves in the final quarter.
They spread the ball wide off the back of the lineout with Jonah Holmes making some inroads in the Italy 22 before North crashed over the line to secure the bonus point. Wales were now in complete control as Faletau ghosted through another gap to put Tipuric over for their fifth try.
Wales: L Williams (I Lloyd 18) (J Holmes 58); J Adams, G North, J Williams, L Rees-Zammit; C Sheedy, K Hardy (G Davies 50); N Smith (W Jones 53), S Parry, T Francis (L Brown 69), W Rowlands (C Hill 53), AW Jones (capt) (E Dee 62), J Botham (A Wainwright 50), J Tipuric, T Faletau.
Italy: J Trulla; L Sperandio (F Mori 54), M Zanon (T Allan 76), C Canna, M Ioane; P Garbisi, S Varney (G Palazzani 69); D Fischetti (S Ferrari 76), L Bigi (capt) (L Ghiraldini 62), G Zilocchi (P Ceccarelli 70), M Lazzaroni, N Cannone (C Stoian 76), M Mbanda (M Lamaro 62), J Meyer, B Steyn.
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