Italy transformed as Cardiff conquered once more

Italy celebrate
It was in Cardiff two years ago that Italy’s renaissance began so it was fitting that they returned to the same venue to underline how far they have come.

Ange Capuozzo, Edoardo Padovani and Paolo Garbisi combined to complete a smash-and-grab in 2022, a sensational final try ending a seven-year wait for Guinness Men’s Six Nations success.

There have been some promising results since, notably a first-ever win over Australia later that year, but when Italy ended 2023 with two heavy defeats to New Zealand and France at the World Cup, the fear was that the win over Wales had simply been a false dawn.

That certainly does not look to be the case after a brilliant first campaign under Gonzalo Quesada, Italy signing off with another impressive win in Cardiff after drawing in France and beating Scotland at home – the first time they have avoided defeat in three games in a single Championship.

The 2022 win came by a single point and this one by three, 24-21, but the difference between the two games could not have been starker.

Wales scored twice late on, but barring a little wobble just after the hour, Italy controlled the match from start to finish.

They did so without Capuozzo, who is injured, and Padovani, who has fallen down the pecking order, but there are other budding superstars in this Italian backline.

Lorenzo Pani stepped in for Capuozzo at full-back and his boot was vital in helping Italy dominate the territory battle, while he showed his danger with ball in hand in finishing a brilliant score from first phase off a lineout.

In the midfield, Tommaso Menoncello continues to fulfil the potential that saw him score on debut as a teenager in Paris. Whether it is with the ball as a powerful runner, or without it as a jackal threat and defensive wall, he is a huge difference maker.

Meanwhile, Ignacio Brex is older but the 31-year-old is in the form of his life. Player of the Match for the second game running, his little pop passes out the back kept Wales guessing all game long and opened up holes time again.

The fact that Italy won the kicking battle is one of the big changes that has come under Quesada. While Kieran Crowley led Gli Azzurri, they played some scintillating rugby, but often paid the price for trying to run the ball too much in their own half.

Likewise, their defence could not always hold up under pressure, but that has certainly changed this year.

Wales scored three tries in the end, but for an hour, they found no gaps in the Azzurri defensive line and were regularly forced backwards by the Italian line speed.

By the time they did break through, the game was effectively up.

Of course, you do not win games just with backs, and Italy’s work at the breakdown made all the difference. After slowing Wales up, Michele Lamaro and Danilo Fischetti jackalled for their lives, earning crucial turnovers.

Off the bench, inexperienced duo Ross Vintcent and Manuel Zuliani had a huge impact, underlining the depth that is being built in this Italy side.

They also dominated the scrum battle, a throwback to the era of Martin Castrogiovanni, Andrea Lo Cicero and co.

Where two years ago, Italy were overjoyed at springing an upset, this was a composed display, matching the expectations that recent performances have built.

Only away in Ireland have Italy not been in a game this year – their other loss to England came by three points in Round One.

The emotion of Lamaro two years ago after that landmark success lived long in the memory. He was excited again here, but more measured, an indication of where Italy now are.

He said: “We want to achieve even more, we know we have had a good Championship but we know we can do a lot better than this.

“There are a few things we have changed. The mindset we go on to the pitch with is something we never had before, we have lots of confidence. In the last few years, we have worked so hard for each other, we went through lots of difficult moments and now have to celebrate the good ones.

“Two games doesn’t define a team, we said it after the World Cup and it’s the same now. We still have to be more consistent and be competitive with every team in the Championship. That’s what we want to do to earn the respect we want.”

If 2022 was the start of a new era for Italian rugby, this win in Wales was something more. Foundations are in place and Gli Azzurri are on the rise.