The year 2020 will be remembered fondly by few, but Welsh rugby has even more reason than most to wish for its end. But there is hope for 2021, and the faithful not present at Parc y Scarlets will cherish this rare win.
Indeed, those who lament the latest death of rugby, lost in a sterility that might keep even keep coronavirus at bay, might have found plenty of reason in this match for hope of life in the old sport yet.
Italy are one of those reasons for hope. Far from anyone’s idea of world-beating, they have nevertheless been good value throughout this autumn – and were again here. But Wales’s experience – nowhere more than in the shape of their two magnificent back-rowers, Taulupe Faletau and Justin Tipuric – saw them through with three late tries.
Before that, though, a brighter future was hinted at for both teams. It was a first half of first tries. All three who scored did so for the first time in international rugby. The first was Wales’s latest contender at scrum-half, Kieran Hardy, the man who went away a boy and has returned to stake his claim.
Two far more familiar figures in red paved the way for that first try, in Hardy’s second Test, Faletau’s pass springing Tipuric through the Italian defence. Another sublime dummy from the flanker and would-be centre did for the last man, and Hardy finished the job by the posts.
That was in only the seventh minute, but by then Italy had threatened plenty. All the more reason to scratch their heads, then, when Wales extended their lead, this time with a first try for Sam Parry. This was Parry’s first start. After Louis Rees-Zammit had made an incision down the left, Hardy went close round the fringes, before Parry was driven over from close range. We had not even reached the 20-minute mark. All the more credit to Italy, who kept their heads.
The second quarter was theirs, 13 points pulling them to within a point at the break. Wales were struggling at the breakdown. In between two Paolo Garbisi penalties from such offences, Marco Zanon scored his first international try.
Italy look as if they have found a viable answer in Garbisi to their long-standing fly-half question, but one of their previous prospects seems to be enjoying the shift to centre alongside him. After an attacking lineout (from yet another breakdown penalty), Carlo Canna dinked a wicked chip in behind the Welsh defence, and Zanon was on to it with alacrity.
When Garbisi’s second penalty sailed over on the cusp of half-time, Wales’s problems intensified, as Josh Adams trudged off to the sin bin, carrying the can for that umpteenth infringement at the breakdown. Italy capitalised, but not before they took a turn at infringing at a breakdown.
Sheedy’s penalty five minutes into the second half stretched Wales’s lead briefly, before a fourth player, Johan Meyer, weighed in with his first international try. And what a try it was. Monty Ioane exploited the absence of Adams down Italy’s left, before Meyer galloped down the right, out-pacing Rees-Zammit of all people, and through Ioan Lloyd for a flanker’s try to cherish.
The lead was short-lived. Wales took the game away from Wales with two tries from players far more familiar to connoisseurs of a scoresheet. Gareth Davies, on for Hardy, ran home from more than 40 metres, released like his predecessor by lovely interplay between Tipuric and Faletau.
And with 10 minutes to play George North registered his 41st try in a Wales shirt. A turnover and smooth hands sent Jonah Holmes at the line. North picked and drove from the ruck. It was left to those maestros in Wales’s back row to supply the final flourish. Sheedy’s lovely delayed pass released Faletau, who sent Tipuric over. A hopeful end in the west to a bleak year.