The year 2020 will be remembered fondly by few, and Welsh rugby has even more reason than most to wish for its end. But there is hope for 2021 and the faithful not present at Parc y Scarlets will cherish this rare win.
Indeed, those who lament the latest death of rugby, lost in a sterility that could keep even coronavirus at bay, might have found plenty of reason in this match for hope of life in the old sport yet.
Italy are one of those reasons for hope. Far from anyone’s idea of world-beating, they have nevertheless been good value throughout this autumn, and were again here. But Wales’s experience – nowhere more than in the shape of their two magnificent back-rowers, Taulupe Faletau and Justin Tipuric – saw them through with three late scores.
A battle for the rarefied heights of fifth in this curious half-competition is not a contest from which to be drawing grand conclusions. There were plenty of concerns for Wales – a lineout that wobbled a little and an alarming penalty count at the breakdown. A defeat was unthinkable and may even have proved terminal for Wayne Pivac as he continues to search for the right blend, so a victory was the least Wales needed. They achieved it in some style in the end.
Italy peddled a compelling style of their own. Their problem – as ever, some might say – is staying in these contests to the bitter end, as much a psychological directive as physical. They played some lovely rugby and were well worth the lead they held midway through the second half. Thereafter, though, the drop-off was familiar and frustrating.
The game’s first four tries, two for each team, were first international scores for all the players concerned. Kieran Hardy, Wales’s latest contender at scrum-half, was put away for the first thanks to fabulous play between Faletau and Tipuric.
That was in only the seventh minute, but by then Italy had threatened plenty. All the more reason to scratch their heads when Wales extended their lead, this time with a first try for Sam Parry from close range after Louis Rees-Zammit had made inroads down the left.
The second quarter was Italy’s, 13 points pulling them to within one at the break. In between two Paolo Garbisi penalties after breakdown offences by Wales, Marco Zanon scored his first international try.
Italy look as if they have found a viable answer in Garbisi to their long-standing fly-half question, but one of their previous prospects seems to be enjoying the shift to centre alongside him. After an attacking lineout (from yet another breakdown penalty), Carlo Canna dinked a wicked chip in behind the Welsh defence, and Zanon was on to it.
When Garbisi’s second penalty sailed over on the verge of half-time Welsh problems intensified as Josh Adams trudged to the sin-bin. Italy were to capitalise eventually with their second. And what a try it was.
A Sheedy penalty had extended Wales’s lead early in the second half, but Italy soon responded. Monty Ioane exploited the absence of Adams down the visitors’ left, before Johan Meyer galloped down the right, out-pacing Rees-Zammit of all people, and through Ioan Lloyd for his own first taste of an international score, and a lead for Italy at last.
It was short-lived. Wales took the game away with two tries from players far more familiar to connoisseurs of a scoresheet. Gareth Davies ran in from more than 40 metres, released by lovely interplay between Tipuric and Faletau. And with 10 minutes to play George North registered his 41st try in a Wales shirt, picking and driving after Jonah Holmes went close.
It was left to those maestros in Wales’s back row to supply the final flourish. Sheedy’s lovely delayed pass released Faletau, who sent Tipuric over. A hopeful end out west to a bleak year.