Warren Gatland heads into the final round of the Six Nations something of a relieved man after Wales gave themselves a shot at finishing second in this season’s Championship.
The Wales coach saw his decision to make 10 changes to his starting side rewarded with a 38-14, bonus-point win over Italy in Cardiff on Sunday.
Had Wales failed to beat the struggling Azzurri, after successive defeats by England and Ireland, the New Zealander would have faced an uncomfortable few days leading up to Saturday’s home finale against a resurgent France, for all he might have learnt some valuable lessons regarding squad depth ahead of next year’s World Cup.
But instead Wales will kick off knowing another bonus-point win over Les Bleus will assure them of the runners-up spot behind already crowned champions Ireland.
Wales enjoyed several sparkling moments while running in five tries during their 12th consecutive victory over Italy but, unsurprisingly given so many new combinations, errors also crept into their game.
“It was a job done, it’s what we wanted,” Gatland said after a match where Wales wing George North bagged a try double, with Hadleigh Parkes, Cory Hill and Justin Tipuric also crossing Italy’s line.
“We’ve got a six-day turnaround and we’ve given players an opportunity,” the twice British and Irish Lions boss explained.
“To make 10 changes, score the points we did and win comfortably was the pleasing aspect.”
Jekyll and Hyde
Former Ireland coach Gatland added: “At times we looked absolutely outstanding and great, and at other times we lacked cohesion.
“That’s probably to be expected when guys have not played together.
“But we achieved what we wanted to do, to get a bonus point and have our destiny in our own hands next week to finish second in the Championship.”
Wales won on Sunday despite being reduced to 13 men early in the second half.
Liam Williams was shown a yellow card just before the break for a high tackle on opposing fullback Matteo Minozzi, while scrum-half Gareth Davies followed him into the sin bin soon after the interval for a deliberate knock-on.
Williams’s temporary exclusion was met by a chorus of boos from a crowd of over 65,000, but Gatland had no complaints about the decision of French referee Jerome Garces.
“I thought the yellow card was fair – we had no problems with it,” the coach said.
“I was disappointed in that if he needed to make the tackle did he need to go that high?
When Williams’s 10 minutes on the sidelines was up, Gatland kept him off the field and sent first-choice fullback Leigh Halfpenny from the bench to finish the game instead.
“The thing with Liam is that he’s an emotional player, it brings the best out of him,” Gatland said.
“But we couldn’t afford with that time on the clock for something else to happen. If he had put his hand out like Gareth did, you are potentially looking at a red card. So it was sending a subtle message really.”
Italy ‘will battle’
This latest reverse meant Italy had now lost 16 successive Championship matches – only France with a run of 17 straight defeats from 1911-1920 have endured a longer losing streak in the Five or Six Nations.
But Italy will equal that unwanted record if they are beaten by Scotland in Rome on Saturday.
As it is, the Azzurri are already guaranteed to finish bottom of the table for the 13th time in 19 seasons since joining the tournament in 2000.
But defiant Italy coach Conor O’Shea insisted better days were on the horizon for his beleaguered side.
“We are doing a heck of a lot, we will fight every battle and improve every week,” he said.
The former Ireland fullback added: “If you go around the clubs, see the under-20s beating Wales, and look at the players coming through, we are building a team and we are building a system piece by piece.”