Wales kept their slim hopes of winning the 2009 RBS 6 Nations alive with a 20-15 win over Italy at the Stadio Flaminio on Saturday.
However, they were lucky to escape from Rome with the points having trailed for much of a fractious match that yielded just one try, Tom Shanklin’s match-winning effort with eight minutes left on the clock.
The Italy coach Nick Mallett, who was pilloried for his decision to deploy Mauro Bergamasco at scrum-half against England, came out a clear winner in the tactical battle with opposite number Warren Gatland, who almost paid the ultimate price for his decision to name a near second string team.
But Shanklin, a late substitute for the injured Lee Byrne, saved the Kiwi’s blushes with a try that finally broke the Italian resistance in the 72nd minute.
The result scarcely did the home side - who had number eight Sergio Parisse in wonderful form - justice, as their clever use of the ball exposed the lightweight make-up of the Wales squad.
The Italians, typically robust in the forwards but ponderous in the backs, produced their best performance of the 2009 6 Nations against a backdrop of rumours of unrest in the camp that threatened to overshadow their preparations.
The Azzurri appeared to take sustenance from Gatland’s decision to make ten changes to his side and Andrea Marcato, their full-back, kicked five penalties to leave them in a promising position late on, before Shanklin did the damage at the death after Shane Williams had gone over for a try in the first-half.
Italy, as is their wont, started the game at breakneck pace. Mauro Bergamasco took the ball off the base of a scrum and offloaded to his brother, Mirco, who punched a massive hole in the Wales defence.
From the ensuing scrum, the Wales pack, which showed six changes from the one that lined out in the defeat to France last month, came under intense pressure. The referee penalised them for taking the scrum down and Marcato slotted over the penalty to give the Azzurri an early 3-0 lead.
They had the chance to go even further ahead when Mark Jones was penalised for holding onto the ball after Luke McLean had grubber-kicked through the gap. However, the Italians, perhaps unwisely, opted to kick for the corner and a handling error saw them lose possession after they had established a good platform for an assault on the Welsh line.
Wales’s first foray into Italian territory, after 19 minutes, nearly yielded a try when James Hook scythed through the midfield and made for the line; however, he was tackled and spilled the ball forward just as he looked to have unlocked the Italian defence. The referee called the play back for a penalty to the Welsh in a previous phase, but Hook pulled his effort wide.
Wales, who had deferred to the Italians for the opening quarter, established a toehold in the game by opting to build through the phases. Luke Charteris, the giant second row, ploughed through the midfield and Mike Phillips shifted the ball out the backs, but Gavin Henson was stopped short of the line. Phillips then spread the ball out the open side, where the Welsh had a three-man overlap, and Henson fed Williams, who jinked around Parisse for a try, his 46th in international rugby. Hook made amends for his earlier profligacy to land the penalty for a 6-7 lead.
However, Gatland’s side gifted the initiative back to the Azzurri when they conceded two kickable penalties inside four minutes. On each occasion, Marcato was unerring from the placed ball.
It could have been worse for the Championship contenders just before the break. From another promising midfield position, McLean kicked behind Mark Jones, who knocked the ball back over his own line before scrambling to touch down from a five-metre scrum as two blue shirts looked ready to pounce on the loose ball. The referee looked to the TMO, and the replay confirmed just how lucky Wales were to escape.
A further sustained period of pressure under the posts failed to yield the try the Italians deserved, with the referee blowing the whistle after Marcato screwed a drop goal attempt wide.
Italy, led by the inspirational Parisse, continued with their policy of pinning Wales into their own half by kicking into the corners, and forcing their wingers to turn. Mark Jones, especially, struggled, but it was Williams, the try scorer, who was caught in possession and was penalised for failing to release 17 minutes into the half. Marcato kicked a fine – if slightly wobbly – goal to edge the home side even further ahead.
Italy’s first piece of indiscipline, when they failed to roll away from a ruck, in the second half allowed Hook to slot over his penalty just minutes later. Mallett, the Italy coach, will have been furious after 20 minutes of dominance failed to yield a greater lead.
Wales took the lead for the first time in the match in the 65th minute, Hook landing a fine penalty from the left hand touchline after the Italians were caught offside.
Lee Byrne, the Wales full-back, was forced off injured with 10 minutes remaining, and his replacement, Tom Shanklin, took just two minutes to give away the penalty that allowed Marcato to nail his fifth penalty of the afternoon to leave Italy 15-13 ahead.
But Shanklin immediately made amends. Hook created space in the midfield with a sublime piece of footwork and offloaded to Shanklin, who coasted over for his 19th try in international rugby. Hook added the conversion to leave Wales 20-15, and more crucially, a try to the good with seven minutes left.
Wales held on for the win, but their reign as champions, on this evidence at least, should not last beyond next weekend.
Italy: A Marcato; G Rubini, G Canale, M Bergamasco, M Pratichetti; L McLean, P Griffen; S Perugini, L Ghiraldini, C Nieto; S Dellape, M Bortolami; A Zanni, M Bergamasco, S Parisse (capt)
Replacements: F Sbaraglini, M Castrogiovanni, C Antonio Del Fava, J Sole, P Canavosio, L Orquera, R Quartaroli.
Wales: L Byrne; M Jones, J Roberts, G Henson, S Williams; J Hook, M Phillips; J Yapp, H Bennett, R Thomas, L Charteris, A Jones (capt), J Thomas, D Jones, A Powell.
Replacements: Matthew Rees, Gethin Jenkins, Bradley Davies, Ryan Jones, Mike Phillips, Stephen Jones, Tom Shanklin.