Ken Owens scored an unlikely try double as Wales moved within one step of a second Grand Slam in three years thanks to a convincing 48-7 victory over Italy in Rome.
Only a trip to Paris to face France on Super Saturday now stands between Wayne Pivac’s men and a clean sweep of the 2021 Guinness Six Nations after a professional performance at the Stadio Olimpico.
Hooker Owens had only scored three tries in his previous 80 Wales appearances, and hadn’t dotted down since 2016, yet he was on a hat-trick within half-an-hour in Rome – firstly pushing a driving maul over the whitewash, before spinning off a ruck and lunging for a second try.
A more familiar scorer, Josh Adams, had opened the floodgates with his fifth try in four matches against the Azzurri, before Taulupe Faletau also got his first Wales score in five years as the bonus point was secured before half-time.
George North moved level with Shane Williams atop most Championship tries for Wales list when he crossed for his 22nd early in the second half, Callum Sheedy then touched down his first on the international stage and Louis Rees-Zammit got his fourth of the Championship to complete the seven-try triumph.
Victory was Wales’s 16th in a row against Italy in all competitions and a remarkable Grand Slam is now within touching distance at the Stade de France next Saturday evening.
WALES OFF TO A FLYER
An inauspicious start by the Italians saw Paolo Garbisi put the opening kick-off out on the full before skipper Luca Bigi gave away a penalty that Dan Biggar slotted between the posts.
Bigi then saw yellow for tackling Gareth Davies having not retreated ten metres after a tap-and-go penalty and, from the subsequent play, Biggar shifted the ball out to the left wing with a long miss-pass where Adams slid over for the opening try.
And a second try came with the Azzurri still down to 14 men on 13 minutes as Wales worked a man over on the right, Rees-Zammit drew the last defender and fed Faletau for the dot down.
Biggar finally erred from the tee with the tricky conversion but 15-0 soon became 22-0 in the 21st minute when Owens – who had produced a beautiful reverse pass for Adams to punch a hole in the Italy defence earlier in the move – steered a driving maul from a lineout over the whitewash.
Italy showed some nice touches in fits and starts, especially through Garbisi at No.10, but Wales had the bonus point before the half-hour mark when Owens spun off the side of another maul and stretched out for the score.
When the Azzurri looked to finally get on the scoreboard just before half-time, Jonathan Davies brilliantly ripped the ball out and Liam Williams then forced another turnover but the hosts were spared conceding a fifth try before the break as Rees-Zammit’s run-in was called back for a forward pass.
A SECOND-HALF SURGE
At 27-0 behind, Italy needed a fast start to the second half but got the exact opposite as Davies offloaded out of a tackle to North, who sprinted in from just outside the 22, within two minutes of the restart to join Williams as the Welshman with the most Championship tries.
However, the Azzurri then finally got the try their hard work deserved as Montanna Ioane chipped over the top, collected his own kick and dived over in the corner, with Garbisi adding the touchline conversion.
Adams almost had his second try, only to be dragged into touch by the covering Garbisi before grounding the ball but relief was short-lived as Marco Riccioni was sin-binned for leading with his arm into contact and Sheedy promptly ran in try number six after an offload from Josh Navidi.
While Sheedy’s try was his first for Wales, Rees-Zammit notched his fourth of the 2021 Guinness Six Nations by intercepting a looped Carlo Canna pass in his own half and demonstrating his pace to streak clear.
Italy continued to gamely press forward trying to narrow the 48-7 deficit but were denied in the Wales 22 late on, as the visitors equalled their biggest margin of victory in Rome.
MOMENT OF THE MATCH
Ken Owens’ second try not only gave him an unlikely double but also wrapped up the bonus point for Wales inside half-an-hour.
While the hooker’s first try saw him comfortably marshal a driving maul over the line, his second demonstrated some impressive athleticism, as he spun out the side of a maul, powered through a couple of tackles and stretched out for a well-deserved score.
PLAYER OF THE MATCH
Players throughout the Wales team shone as Ken Owens got his two tries and Dan Biggar brilliantly pulled the strings from No.10 but it was Josh Navidi who was named Guinness Six Nations Player of the Match.
The back-rower did a lot of unseen work to keep his side in control, while also brilliantly assisting Callum Sheedy’s try with a neat offload, making 33 metres on seven carries and completing a team-high 18 tackles.
His work-rate was relentless and after missing the autumn through injury, the 30-year-old is back to his world-class best once more.