ROME (Reuters) - Wales overcame a poor start to eventually trample Italy 33-7 in their opening Six Nations encounter in Rome on Sunday, a game that will leave the visitors plenty to ponder before a clash with champions England next weekend.
The Welsh appeared to take Italy, the tournament’s perennial wooden-spooners, lightly at first, squandering chances at goal in search of an elusive five points and failing to find top gear until the final 20 minutes of the match when they raced away.
“We will have to put England under more pressure than we did today against Italy,” Welsh coach Rob Howley said, adding the team had shown composure to overhaul their hosts.
Fullback Leigh Halfpenny calmed nerves after Italy had improbably opened the scoring in the first half with a try by scrumhalf Edoardo Gori, who was carried under the posts by a rolling mall, breathing life into a home crowd of 41,000.
Italy’s long-suffering fans have dared to hope this year after their team, under new Irish coach Conor O‘Shea, ambushed South Africa in Florence last autumn, beating the former world champions for the first time in their biggest upset of all time.
The Welsh, unable to breach Italy’s defence in the first half, tightened up their game and turned to sharp-shooting Halfpenny who fed off Italy’s numerous mistakes and steadied nerves with four straight penalty kicks.
But Wales still took an hour to cross the chalk in a game that was fought hard up front -- so hard that the game was stopped at one point to wipe the ball clean of blood -- but is unlikely to give England coach Eddie Jones sleepless nights.
England also made an unimpressive start in their opening victory against France at Twickenham on Saturday, but Wales struggled for half the game against opponents who would give away 15 penalties by the final whistle.
“There were parts of that game that I think we can make big improvements on,” Welsh captain Alun Wyn Jones said.
Despite having 60 percent of the possession, the Welsh failed to penetrate through the middle or get their big backs into space during the first half.
The Welsh scrum and rolling mall were also blunted in an opening stanza that belonged to Italy’s veteran captain, Sergio Parisse, who set up the home side’s only try.
But Italy tired under the weight of penalties and tackles, and Welsh centre Jonathan Davies finally touched down.
The floodgates opened, and tries followed from winger Liam Williams and, in the dying minutes, a rampaging George North, who overcame a corked thigh to race more than 50 metres to seal the win.
O‘Shea blamed the penalty count for Italy’s blow-out in the final 20 minutes, implying that they did not enjoy fair treatment from Irish referee JP Doyle.
“We can’t lose the penalty count 15-5 and still win matches,” O‘Shea said.
“Wales were the better side today in the end, but I think that we were the better side in the first half and we have to make sure we change the perception of people that look at us... so we are refereed on a level playing field.”
Reporting by Mark Bendeich; Editing by Toby Davis, Ken Ferris and Ian Chadband