Wales opened their account in the 2023 Guinness Six Nations and handed Warren Gatland his first win of his second spell in charge as they triumphed in Rome.
A quick start set them on their way to a 29-17- success, picking up the bonus point in the process against Italy.
And ahead of a trip to Paris to take on France on Super Saturday, with the Azzurri off to Edinburgh, it is the perfect opportunity to reflect on what made the difference at the Stadio Olimpico.
Webb rolling back the years
Rhys Webb was back in the Wales No.9 jersey in the Guinness Six Nations for the first time in six years and he took the opportunity with both hands.
If there was a measure of fortune in the bounce of the ball from his chip kick to set up Rio Dyer’s opener, it was still great vision from the scrum-half to spot the gap in the Italian backfield.
More impressive was the way that Wales played with a tempo that had been missing up to now in the Championship, with Webb urging on forwards and backs alike as the visitors took advantage of every opportunity early on to race into a 22-3 advantage.
In the second half, there was some vintage Webb as he produced a trademark dummy and snipe that left Giacomo Nicotera grasping at thin air. Taulupe Faletau has played with Webb enough times to know what was coming and was on the shoulder to stroll over for the bonus-point score.
It has been a long wait to get back to this point, and there was no little emotion from the scrum-half as he collected his Guinness Six Nations Player of the Match award.
He said: “It’s very emotional really.
“It’s been hard. I’ve kept at it. There are a lot of good nines in Wales at the moment.
“I’ve had to bide my time but I’ve been waiting for this opportunity. I said in the week that I believe in myself. I believe in what I can do.
“I just need to be out playing and it’s a huge honour to be out here with the number nine jersey, playing with the boys.”
Building blocks for Wales before trip to Paris
This was not the perfect performance by Wales, but there were a number of areas on which they will hope to build ahead of a tricky trip to France in Round 5.
With Les Bleus smashing records in victory over England at Twickenham, Gatland’s team will go in as underdogs, but they will relish that status.
Against an Italian lineout that has been a real strength up to this point, Adam Beard and company wreaked absolute havoc.
The giant second row set out his stall early in the first half, stealing the first Italian throw on the 22 just as Italy were hoping to get off to a flying start.
It was a sign of what was to come, with Justin Tipuric chipping in with two further steals, one five metres from his own line to all but end Italian hopes of a comeback.
Beard’s impressive display was not just in the lineout though, getting back to his best in maul defence, with one crucial turnover as he just charged through the centre of one dangerous drive.
Gatland and attack coach Alex King will also have been pleased with the speed of Wales’ ruck ball, particularly in the first quarter of the game.
At that time, Wales’ ball presentation at ruck-time was outstanding and it allowed them to keep Italy on the back foot.
Thereafter, they were not as clinical, but that sort of speed of ball will give them a chance to build on this four-try showing.
Italian struggles in the backfield coverage
When Ange Capuozzo was ruled out of the remainder of the Championship, there was inevitable disappointment at the loss of perhaps Italy’s biggest attacking weapon.
What perhaps went under the radar was the fact that Capuozzo also offers a level of security at the back that Italy might find hard to replace.
While Tommaso Allan enjoyed some good moments in the No.15 jersey, even doing a good impression of Capuozzo with some crucial line breaks, his lack of familiarity with the back three was evident early.
Webb’s early kick that led to Dyer’s score was effective in large part because two of Italy’s back three were defending in the defensive line, leaving Pierre Bruno to cover the entire backfield. That was why the ball was allowed to bounce twice, the second kindly falling to Dyer and giving Wales the perfect start.
It was a similar scenario shortly after when a kick straight down the middle of the Italian backfield defence found open grass, with the covering Allan racing across but forced into a hurried clearance, with a clear misunderstanding between the back three.
Italy were able to tighten up that aspect of the game, but the lack of cohesion hurt them early on and played a big part in their defeat.
A case of what might have been for the Azzurri
On the subject of reasons for Italy’s loss, it is hard to look past their lack of composure when they did manage to break down the Welsh defence.
All Championship, the Azzurri have shown the attacking structures necessary to open up opposition defences.
After a slow start in Rome, they did the same against Wales, but paid the price for their profligacy in the opposition 22.
Wales managed 2.4 points per visit to the 22, hardly an impressive number, but comfortably better than Italy’s 1.6 points, which arguably undersold their inefficiency once they had broken the line.
In a game in which Italy had 11 line breaks to just four from their opponents, the Azzurri were outscored four tries to two.
Whether it was Allan throwing a pass behind Stephen Varney on one clear line break, or the inability to find Paolo Garbisi on an attack that ended with Ignacio Brex knocking on over the line later in the first half, Italy were unable to finish off multiple gilt-edged chances.
Again, this is where Capuozzo’s absence was felt, you sense that had he been playing, he would likely have finished at least one of those chances on his own.
But more importantly, it was the lack of composure that hurt Italy, trying an extra pass that was not on, or going the wrong way once they had broken through.
With clearer thinking, this was a game that could have been a much closer affair.
Italian discipline costly
This performance will go down as Italy’s most disappointing of the campaign, along with their loss to England, and on both occasions, their lack of discipline was major factor in their defeat.
Even at 15-3, it felt like Italy were just a score away from making the game competitive, but the loss of Lorenzo Cannone to the sin-bin for bringing down a maul, conceding a penalty try in the process, left Kieran Crowley’s team down a man for ten minutes.
At 14, they still showed their class, with Sebastian Negri getting over for their first try, but just as they got back up to a full complement, Pierre Bruno led with the elbow on one charge, earning ten minutes in the bin.
It is hard enough to win rugby matches without playing a quarter of the match down a man – the same situation Italy found themselves in at Twickenham.
There is no question that the team has taken a step forward this campaign, but with four defeats in as many games, there is some urgency to improve in Edinburgh on Super Saturday.
If they are to match last year’s historic win in Cardiff, they will certainly need to improve their discipline and make sure they are playing the full 80 minutes with 15 men.