Six Nations - Wales beat Italy, get Grand Slam shot
Wales are one match away from a Grand Slam after grinding out a 24-3 victory in their Six Nations clash against Italy at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff.
Only an outstanding Italian defence stopped a one-sided match becoming a rout on the scoreboard, with the blue lines only being breached by opportunist second-half tries from Jamie Roberts and Alex Cuthbert (pictured).
Wales' dominance of both possession and territory was such that a 21-point victory margin seemed the minimal possible return for their efforts, however, and the Italian side will return home rightly proud of a magnificent effort that defied a far superior outfit for long spells of the match.
The home side will now face France next week with a chance to win a third Grand Slam in eight years, while Italy face a potential wooden-spoon showdown against Scotland at Rome's Stadio Olimpico.
Straight from the kick-off Wales were on the front foot, with key ball carriers such as George North, Jamie Roberts and Toby Faletau consistently trying to break their opponents lines.
The early pressure quickly paid dividends as Wales won a 10th minute, which Halfpenny landed brilliantly from 45m.
The advantage was handed straight back, however, as Wales knocked on and then collapsed the scrum to give Mirco Bergamasco the simplest of kicks, dead in front and inside the Welsh 22m.
Wales continued undeterred, however, throwing the ball around and looking for a try, with their ambition underline when going for touch with a very kickable penalty seven minutes later. Faletau came close to breaking through but was halted five metres out, but the pressure yielded a penalty dead in front which Halfpenny slotted home to make it 6-3.
Wales continued to push and probe, with North, Cuthbert and Roberts all coming close to making the breakthrough, but their sole reward was another penalty for Halfpenny just before half-time. Wales had more than twice the first half possession and territory of their opponents in the first half, but the tackling stats were the telling point: Italy made 76 tackles to Wales's 14 in the opening 40 minutes.
Italy continued to battle hard after the restart, and began to keep the ball much more effectively - ironically, something which cost them as they threw men into the rucks to keep moving upfield. A handling blunder on 50 minutes saw Priestland scoop up the ball, and deliver a pass to Roberts. The Welsh centre wrong-footed Bergamasco with a change of direction, and with his only other chasers being forwards he had a straightforward 70m run-in to score under the posts.
Wales almost added another try just five minutes later when Justin Tipuric - superb as a replacement for the injured Sam Warburton - was hauled down just two metres short of the line.
Yet time and again that was as close as Wales got, as Italy completed an astonishing 121 tackles - compared to Wales' 62 - over the course of 80 minutes.
The visitors earned a respite when Leigh Halfpenny earned a spell in the sin-bin for clumsily taking out Sergio Parisse in mid-air, though the boos of the crowd said everything about Parisse's somewhat theatrical reaction to the incident.
Despite the man deficit Wales increased their lead through a 35m penalty by Rhys Priestland, who put his nightmarish display against England behind him with a much more solid day in the number 10 jersey.
Wales continued to look for another try - coach Warren Gatland later admitted that his men were dismayed at not winning by a greater margin - going for the corner with a kick.
But in the end it was quick thinking by Gethin Jenkins that brought the second touch down, the Wales skipper tapping a quick penalty on the half-way mark then quickly releasing Cuthbert, who aimed straight for the Italian front row and demonstrated both great speed and strength to beat three tackles and make it to the corner.
That saw the match end on a high for the home side, who will host France on the same turf in seven days time looking for a first Grand Slam since their glorious efforts of 2005 and 2008.
Italy, meanwhile, will take huge positives from their display as they prepare to face Scotland in Rome next weekend hanging onto their hopes of avoiding finishing last in the championship.