George North scored two tries as a much-changed Wales side returned to winning ways with a 38-14 bonus-point victory over Italy at the Principality Stadium to move up to second in the Six Nations standings on Sunday.
Warren Gatland made 10 alterations for the visit of winless Italy after back-to-back defeats to England and champions Ireland, and North’s display helped ensure Wales avoided a third straight loss – which would have been the first time they had suffered that fate in the competition since 2006.
Hadleigh Parkes, one of the five players to retain their place after the 37-27 reverse in Dublin, and North capitalised on a pair of mistakes from Italy, who were otherwise impressive in the opening period, to give the hosts a 14-0 lead
Matteo Minozzi tricked his way through on the left wing to reduce the deficit, but Conor O’Shea’s side failed to make further inroads despite possessing a man advantage for close to 20 second-half minutes following yellow cards for Liam Williams and Gareth Davies.
Cory Hill crossed while Wales, captained by Taulupe Faletau in his first appearance since December, were reduced to 14 men, before North and Justin Tipuric secured a victory that puts them in pole position to finish as runners-up.
There was a late consolation for Italy when Mattia Bellini got their second try with four minutes left, but a 16th successive Six Nations defeat puts them one away from matching France’s record for consecutive losses.
— Welsh Rugby Union (@WelshRugbyUnion) March 11, 2018
It took just four minutes for Wales to get off the mark as Parkes bounced off a poor tackle from Tommaso Castello, who consequently went off for a head injury assessment, to dot down behind the posts.
Gatland’s side made it two in quick succession when Owen Watkin intercepted a blind pass from Maxime Mbanda – who was soon replaced by Giovanni Licata – inside his own half and surged away to set up North.
However, Italy, who looked composed in possession despite their early errors, hit back in the 10th minute when Minozzi showed delightful footwork to step around Williams and stretch beyond Steff Evans in the corner.
Grande meta di Minozzi!
— NatWest 6 Nazioni (@SeiNazioniRugby) March 11, 2018
The tempo inevitably slowed and Davies had a score ruled out for latching onto Evans’ chip from an offside position, before a break in play following Faletau’s huge hit on Tommaso Allan.
Gareth Anscombe split the posts from the tee after Allan sent a penalty wide, but Williams was sent to the sin bin for a high shot on Minozzi on the stroke of half-time.
Hill powered over from close range despite Wales’ numerical disadvantage in the 43rd minute, and the hosts were temporarily reduced to 13 when Davies saw yellow for a deliberate knock-on.
Leigh Halfpenny came on at full-back in place of Williams and, after Wales restored to their full complement amid wholesale replacements, North dived across the whitewash from Rhys Patchell’s offload with 14 minutes remaining.
Tipuric finished from Parkes’ looping pass in a late flourish from the hosts, but it was Italy who had the final say four minutes from time when they spread the play to Bellini to score in the left corner.
KEO.co.za News wire is powered by opta