Six Nations: Wales beat Italy in tournament opener in Cardiff
Last Updated: 03/02/14 10:27am
Jamie Roberts breaks through the line, setting up Scott Williams for Wales' second try
Wales got their defence of the Six Nations title off to a winning start with a far from convincing 23-15 win over Italy.
Tries at either end of the first half from wing Alex Cuthbert and centre Scott Williams helped Wales into a 17-3 lead at the Millennium Stadium.
But Italy hit back after the break with two scores from centre Michele Campagnaro and Wales ultmately had to rely on 13 points from the boot of Leigh Halfpenny.
It was a scrappy, disjointed effort by the champions as they failed to increase the tempo at any point against battling opponents.
Campagnaro proved the game's dominant attacking force, and if Italy had shown a little more composure at key times then they could have left Cardiff with a famous victory.
It was Wales' 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 Wales skipper, with Warburton beginning his comeback after a shoulder injury on the bench, while Rhys Priestland reclaimed fly-half duties from Dan Biggar and Luke Charteris started instead of suspended second-row forward Ian Evans.
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 for his 10th try in 20 Tests, before Halfpenny kicked the touchline conversion.
Wales almost scored again when George North was narrowly denied following a kick and chase from inside his own half.
Italy needed a settling score, and it arrived through Tommaso Allan's 13th-minute penalty from close range after Wales flanker Dan Lydiate infringed.
An angled Halfpenny penalty 12 minutes before half-time took his team into double figures, but Italy kept plugging away and they went close to a 35th-minute try when Sergio Parisse tangled with North, but the Stade Francais number eight knocked on before crossing Wales' line.
The Welsh response was emphatic, as centre Jamie Roberts blasted through Italy's defensive line 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 to haul Italy back in contention.
Allan missed the conversion before Halfpenny's uncharacteristic penalty miss, meaning Wales could not relax in a game they might have thought was wrapped up after 40 minutes.
A second Halfpenny penalty extended Wales' lead after 67 minutes, by which time Warburton had taken the field as replacement for Lydiate, but yet again the visitors hit back.
And it was Campagnaro who again breached Wales' defence, picking off Halfpenny's pass to Roberts before sprinting 60 metres for a try that Allan converted.
Italy were back in the hunt at 20-15, and Wales needed to finish strongly following a second-half performance that will have frustrated head coach Warren Gatland.
Halfpenny's third successful penalty sealed the win, but they will require a vast improvement next weekend against Ireland in Dublin.
Six Nations 2014: Wales v Italy
Warren Gatland was "pretty satisfied" after Wales launched their Six Nations campaign with a 23-15 win over Italy.
Wales were far from convincing as they got the defence of their Six Nations title off to a winning start in Cardiff.
Jacques Brunel believes his Italy side can cause defending Six Nations champions Wales problems in Cardiff on Saturday.