ROME (Reuters) - Wales just missed out on scoring a bonus point in the first round of the Six Nations championship but their thirst for one helped put them on top of the table on Sunday.
For the first time this season, the tournament is employing a bonus-point system that operates in professional competitions across Europe and the southern hemisphere.
At the end of the opening weekend, Wales topped the table on points difference after a 33-7 victory against lowly Italy, while the other weekend’s winners, England and Scotland, scraped narrow wins.
That would have been the likely outcome even without a bonus-point system, but Wales coach Rob Howley said after the win in Rome that the incentive of a bonus for scoring four tries had put his players in a particularly aggressive mindset from the start.
Captain Alun Wyn Jones opted for an attacking lineout three times in a row before Italy’s stout defence finally persuaded him to give the ball to goalkicking maestro Leigh Halfpenny, who kicked four straight penalties to calm the visitors’ nerves.
Having finally scored a try after an hour, Wales could have locked down the match, especially with a slippery ball and an Italian captain, Sergio Parisse, always threatening to bust through the Welsh line.
Instead, Wales went hunting for the four tries -- even though they could have risked further injury to their key winger, George North.
Even though North was hobbling with a corked right thigh with five minutes left on the clock and the game was already won, he wanted to carry on and ended up going over for a 60-metre try in the 78th minute, Wales’ third try.
Of course, there must have been a temptation for Howley to bring him off with a view to next weekend’s big clash against champions, England.
“It (North’s decision) gave us a good insight into what the players were thinking like. They were eager to get the bonus point,” Howley said.
Earlier in the week, Six Nations chief executive John Feehan had said he felt the bonus-point system, which also rewards a losing team that comes within seven points of the victor, was inherently unfair.
He argued that it could exaggerate the home team’s advantage, especially as the Six Nations requires three teams each season to play three of their five matches away.
Time will tell how the system works but France and Ireland were not complaining about being the first sides to earn a bonus point in defeat.
In Rome’s Stadio Olimpico too, the new rule ensured the away team were still pushing hard until the finish to score repeated tries, much to enjoyment of a sizeable Welsh contingent in the crowd.
“We don’t go into game thinking about bonus points. We need to get the win first. But when we finally scored (a try), we were pushing to get that bonus point,” said centre Scott Williams.
Editing by Ian Chadband