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WOEFUL Wales are staring down the barrel of an almost certain Six-Nations whitewash after botching up their Italian job in Rome.

Steve Hansen's fireless dragons were simply awful and return to Cardiff with just six days to prepare for England's arrival in town.

On the evidence of this humiliation at the Stadio Flaminio, they will be eaten alive by a rampant side who have lost only once to the old enemy in 10 years.

To make matters worse, wingman Mark Jones will not be around for the Millennium Stadium showdown.

The Llanelli speedster was taken to hospital with a neck injury after a high tackle from Cristian Bezzi in the closing minutes.

Defeat was a shattering blow for Hansen, whose only consolation is that Italian try hero Matthew Phillips, a fellow Kiwi, promised to buy him a beer as a gesture of commiseration.

Opening his heart, Hansen said: "We scored three tries but they were the only times we won the collisions with Italy. We missed tackles and got the basics wrong."The question will have to be asked whether we had the right attitude. We will have to look at ourselves and learn from this performance.

"I know it is painful for everybody - but it is twice as painful for the players. Now they will be judged by their actions.

"It is at times like this that you learn a man's character. If he falls down then he is not the guy for you, but if he gets up and starts fighting again then he is someone you want.

"If I am asking the players to do that then I have got to be the first one back off the floor."

Having failed to win the first game of a championship season for six long years, Wales desperately wanted a slick start. Instead, they found themselves seven points down inside three minutes.

Christian Stoica had already been held up over the line before prop Giampiero De Carli was driven over to leave the 8,000 travelling Welsh fans in shock. Diego Dominguez converted.

Thankfully Wales hit back within a minute of shipping that soft try. Some wonderful handling from Iestyn Harris and Martyn Williams set up Tom Shanklin and the Saracens star linked with second-row Steve Williams, who lumbered over from 20 metres for a try that Harris improved.

With the cobwebs blown away, Wales suddenly looked in top gear and suggested they could win this game with some room to spare.

Dominguez pushed a penalty wide on 12 minutes and two minutes later,

a break from Gareth Thomas and Leigh Davies set up Shanklin, who raced clear from half way to put Wales ahead.

However, the lead lasted for just eight minutes before Italy's Carlo Festuccia barged his way over for a try that Dominguez converted.

A Harris penalty redressed the balance and Wales would have had another try had Mark Jones held on to a Rhys Williams pass after another break from Leigh Davies. Instead, they were pegged back by a Dominguez penalty on 31 minutes, then had to endure five torrid minutes of defending on their own line before Dominguez edged the Azzurri in front with a drop goal two minutes before the break.

Wales struggled to find a cutting edge at the start of the second half and Italy soaked up the pressure without too much trouble.

Hansen took a gamble in the 47th minute by introducing Llanelli flanker Dafydd Jones for Steve Williams and giving a first cap to rookie Bridgend hooker Gareth Williams.

And with Wales not even firing on one cylinder, another newcomer, Llanelli's Matthew Watkins, was brought on in a bid to spice things up.

Instead, things got even more desperate when New Zealand-born No.8 Phillips scored Italy's third try.

Wales just couldn't escape from their own half and as the Italians wound down the clock and Hansen even substituted captain Colin Charvis, who had been totally anonymous.

Dominguez dropped another goal eight minutes from time and Wales's woe was compounded when Jones was stretchered off after Bezzi's shocking high tackle, which earned the Italian lock a yellow card.

By then, the game was over and although Dwayne Peel grabbed a consolation try in injury time, it was too little, too late.

Hansen added: "We have got to give Italy credit and they thoroughly deserved the win. It tells us we played very, very poorly. But we can't let it affect the build-up to England.

"We can climb back up against England. We can show the commitment and fight. The boys are not stupid and they will learn from this. They have to learn.

"These are the best 32 players in Wales We will keep working hard but it is just a reflection of where we are as a rugby nation."

SCORERS: Italy: Tries: De Carli, Festuccia, Phillips. Conv: Dominguez (3). Pen: Dominguez. DG: Dominguez (2).

Wales: Tries: Williams, Shanklin, Peel. Conv: Harris (2). Pen: Harris.

ITALY: P Vaccari; M Bergamasco, C Stoica, G Raineri, (M Bergamasco 26mins), D Dallan, D Dominguez, A Troncon (capt); G De Carli, C Festuccia, R Martinez (S Perugini 58mins), C Bezzi, M Bortolami, A De Rossi, A Ronald-Persico, M Phillips.

WALES: R Williams; M Jones (C Sweeney 75mins), T Shanklin, L Davies, G Thomas, I Harris, D Peel; I Thomas, M Davies (G Williams 47mins), B Evans, R Sidoli, S Williams (D Jones 47mins), M Owen, M Williams, C Charvis. (capt).Pictures: PAUL WEBB..................


LATIN LESSON: Dominguez celebrates; TOP MARK: Alessandro Troncon's kick for Italy is charged down by Wales wing Mark Jones; ROYAL APPROVAL: Prince Harry
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:The People (London, England)
Geographic Code:4EUUW
Date:Feb 16, 2003
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