Wales launched their bid for a historic Six Nations title hat-trick in unconvincing fashion as underdogs Italy made them scrap every inch of the way for a 23-15 victory.
First-half tries by wing Alex Cuthbert and Scott Williams underpinned a healthy 17-3 interval advantage, but Italy – inspired by the brilliant Sergio Parisse – refused to go quietly.
Wales full-back Leigh Halfpenny kicked both conversions and three penalties, passing 350 Test points in the process, yet Italy arguably deserved more than centre Michele Campagnaro’s second-half try double, plus a Tommaso Allan conversion and penalty.
Wales centre Jamie Roberts blamed “silly mistakes” for the unconvincing nature of the win. “We certainly made it hard for ourselves. We need a massive focus on retaining the ball and no silly mistakes. We have to look at ourselves and cut out the errors,” he said. Coach Warren Gatland put a more positive spin on things. “They made it tough for us,” he said. “Italy were dogged.”
Wales’s triumph will not set alarm bells ringing in the Ireland camp ahead of Saturday’s Dublin clash.
Campagnaro proved to be the game’s dominant attacking force, and if Italy had shown a little more composure they could have left Cardiff with a famous victory.
It was Wales’s seventh successive win against the Azzurri, but that statistic should not be allowed to cover up a performance that never moved out of third gear.
Ospreys lock Alun-Wyn Jones replaced Sam Warburton as skipper, Warburton beginning his comeback from a shoulder injury on the bench, while Rhys Priestland reclaimed stand-off duties from Dan Biggar.
Italy saw lock Marco Bortolami win his 100th cap, but an inexperienced, injury-hit back division featured four players with just seven Test appearances between them. And the Azzurri were rocked by a fourth-minute Wales try following some nightmarish defending by debutant wing Angelo Esposito.
Priestland’s kick into the Italian 22 should have been collected, but Esposito made a hash of it and Cuthbert pounced, Halfpenny converting.
Italy needed a settling score, and it arrived through Allan’s 13th-minute penalty after Dan Lydiate infringed.
A Halfpenny penalty 12 minutes before half-time made it 10-3, then Italy’s hopes of a try were denied after Parisse knocked on before crossing Wales’s line.
And the Welsh response was emphatic, as centre Jamie Roberts carved open Italy’s defence before his inside pass was collected by midfield partner Williams for a high-class try that Halfpenny converted to post a 14-point interval lead.
Italy stunned Wales at the start of the second period when they scored a breakaway try after stealing possession just outside their own 22.
Campagnaro and wing Leonardo Sarto combined confidently, before Campagnaro showed a blistering turn of pace by winning the race following his kick ahead, though Allan missed the conversion.
A second Halfpenny penalty extended Wales’s lead after 67 minutes, by which time Warburton had replaced Lydiate, but yet again the visitors hit back.
And it was Campagnaro who struck again, intercepting Halfpenny’s pass before sprinting away for a try that Allan converted, putting Italy back in the hunt at 20-15, only for Halfpenny’s third penalty to seal the win.