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THE ITALIAN JOB; WALES Vs ITALY: MARCH 10th 2012 AT MILLENNIUM STADIUM Workmanlike Welsh set up slam decider.

Byline: ROB GRIFFITHS

VINTAGE stuff it certainly was not, but Wales set up a Grand Slam clash with the French with a scrappy and less than convincing showing against a limited Italian side.

Wales claimed victory to move one win away from a third Grand Slam title in eight seasons, but knew a much sterner assignment awaited them the following weekend in Cardiff against a France side, whose defeat by England the following day ended their title hopes.

Italy arrived in Cardiff without a hope or a prayer of victory, and that coming from within their own camp, yet they scrapped for everything and stood up firm to wave after wave of red attacks.

Warren Gatland's men dominated with ball in hand, the first half statistics showing Italy had been forced to make 76 tackles to Wales' 14, while that moved to 98 Azzurri tackles on the hour mark compared to Wales' 36, who had up to then still not missed a single hit, while Italy had missed nine tackles.

By the end of the match Italy had made more than 120 tackles, almost double the number of their hosts, yet despite these damning statistics Wales failed to produce the rout many had predicted.

Italy are no longer the Six Nations push-overs they were of yesteryear. They give nothing away and, while they may not have the backline to punish teams, they are more than capable of giving sides a scare.

In honesty Wales were never really in any danger of going down to the unlikeliest of shocks, but that they failed to rack up a morale-boosting score against a side desperate to avoid the wooden spoon must have worried Gatland and his coaching staff.

Far too often Wales broke through an overworked Italian defensive line, but lacked the clinical edge to make more of the build-up play. All too often they coughed up possession in good areas and gifted the Azzurri easy opportunities to clear their lines.

George North was a constant menace throughout for the Italians, constantly coming off his wing and looking for work.

He made the game's opening break with barely a minute on the clock, taking Roberts' inside pass while fellow winger Alex Cuthbert also got his hands on the ball in the early exchanges.

It seemed only a matter of time until Wales would utilise the power of their ball-carriers to begin running in the tries, but they had to be content with a penalty from Halfpenny to open the scoring, although his points were immediately cancelled out by Mirco Bergamasco's effort a minute later.

Halfpenny fired over his second penalty of the day as the game began to dip into a lull, Italy offering little in attack, while Wales were becoming increasingly frustrated with penalties and turn overs they were conceding, although it must be said referee George Clancy was hardly helping to keep the game flowing.

Halfpenny knocked on following a superb tackle from Italian talisman Sergio Parisse as Wales finally managed quick ball, and they went further ahead as the diminutive full-back slotted his third penalty of the day just before the interval.

Wales have geared their entire game-plan around quick ball at the rucks, with their power runners able to exploit the ensuing gaps in defence.

However, Italy are masters at slowing play down, forcing teams to build through the phases and then stealing possession at the right moment, so it was fairly ironic that when Alun Wyn Jones forced a turn over, Wales took the opportunity to run from deep, Rhys Priestland, who again did not enjoy the best of days in a Wales shirt, holding up the covering defence before passing to Roberts to dart clear from inside his own half and race under the posts.

With Halfpenny adding the extras, Wales moved into a comfortable 13-point lead, but they were soon forced to endure an uncomfortable period as the full-back was harshly sent to the sin-bin after Clancy judged the Cardiff Blues' ace had taken Parisse out in the air dangerously, although the Welsh youngster had only eyes for the ball the entire time and was guilty more of a clumsy challenge than dangerous play.

And to make matters worse the whole incident had come on the back of a glaring knock-on from Bergamasco when trying to field a clearance.

But as at Twickenham a fortnight earlier when Priestland was sent to the bin, Wales survived their ordeal and not only kept a clean sheet during Halfpenny's absence, but added to their tally as Priestland fired over a penalty after the Welsh scrum had forced their opponents into retreat.

And to put a bit of gloss on an otherwise dour contest, Cuthbert darted clear from halfway to score in the corner under great pressure from Luke McLean and Giulio Toniolatti in the dying minutes after stand-in skipper Gethin Jenkins took a quick penalty to release the winger.

But while this was ultimately a forgettable performance from Wales, it was the result that was all important. Now all eyes turned to the French.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Justin Tipuric - Had big shoes to fill in the absence of Sam Warburton, but more than made up for the skipper's loss.

WALES 24 T: Roberts, Cuthbert. C: Halfpenny. P: Halfpenny (3), Priestland.

ITALY 3 P: Bergamasco.

WALES: Halfpenny (Hook 75), Cuthbert, Davies, Roberts (Williams 68), North, Priestland, Phillips (Webb 70), Jenkins, Rees (Owens 62), A Jones (James 70), AW Jones (Charteris 62), Evans, Lydiate, Tipuric, Faletau (R Jones 66).

SIN BIN: Halfpenny. ITALY: Masi (Toniolatti 70), McLean, Canale (Benvenuti 66), Sgarbi, Bergamasco, Burthon, Semenzato (Botes 66), Lo Cicero (Cittadini70), Ghiraldini (D'Apice 51), Cittadini (Staibano 49), Geldenhuys, Van Zyl (Bortolami 49), Zanni, Favaro (Barbieri 62), Parisse.

REFEREE: George Clancy (Ire). ATT: 62,000.

CAPTION(S):

Winger George North takes on the Italian defence in Wales' 24-3 win in the Millennium Stadium (above), Alex Cuthbert breaks to score his side's second try (top) and Justin Tipuric is challenged by Italy''s Cornelius Van Zyl (bottom)
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Mar 20, 2012
Words:1002
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