Before this game the Celtic gods seem to have taken kindly to Wayne Pivac, as if they’d found he had a great-great-grandmother who lived in Resolven. Unlike Gatland’s era which came to an end at the World Cup semis with the great man seemingly in charge of an ambulance corps, Pivac had fewer injury worries. Yet not having the likes of the mighty “Lane Train” of Owen Lane at his disposal, or the mercurial 18-year-old Gloucester wing Louis Rhys-Zammit, must have disappointing.
Choosing George North over Saracens’ Nick Tompkins and moving the 17 stone, 6ft 4 inch wing to centre animated many a barroom conversation, so too the fact that he had a plenitude of choice when it came to scrum halves. A quandary, even if it was a good quandary. In Welsh rugby, when it comes to the number 9, we all believe in numerology.
In the end Pivac had to perm one from three. Gareth Davies was not available because of injury and the Blues’ Tomos Williams started ahead of the fiery Rhys Webb. And bringing in Parc y Scarlets’ miracle maker Kiwi Johnny McNicholl in for his Welsh debut on the wing, with Josh Adams complementing him on the other, underlined an intention to play fast and open and thrillingly. A try fest might just be on the cards for a team that won the Grand Slam but only scored ten tries in the process. The question on many a beer-moistened lip was could Pivac bring in the same brand of exciting, high-octane rugby to the national side as he had to the Scarlets, who won the Pro 12 with rugby that was often nothing short of joyous?
There was also a new Italian coach, the South African centre Franco Smith, who had played for the Newport at the turn of the millennium, so he was no stranger to the glamour, well, to the approach, at least, of Welsh rugby. Smith favours an expansive game and had a powerful backline to offer punch in attack. In pre-match interviews, he signalled an intent to put the match-losing ways of the Azzurri firmly behind them, their win against Scotland in 2015 feeling like a long time ago simply because it was.
The first quarter had plenty of Welsh flair on display, with McNicholl on fire early on and Tomos Williams nothing less than a yapping terrier around the rucks. Biggar kept the scoreboard ticking over with three penalties but then the Saracens’ Tompkins, on for a bloodied McNicholl, set World Cup top try scorer Josh Adams powering off for the line, finding the corner with the certainty of a homing missile. This was Wales confidently playing ball in hand, forsaking the sometimes tedium of the ping pong kicking game. Set pieces resulted in running, then running resulted in faster, open running. This was a new Welsh style, with oodles of variety and bucketloads of intent.
Tempo setter Tomos Williams’ kicking game was at times inch-accurate, on one occasion planting a kick so sweetly it kissed the corner flag as it went into touch. Pressuring the Italian line again, youngster Wainwright chose the blind side, a decision rewarded by another try by Adams, who received adventurous ball sent from between Dan Biggar’s legs, which then scythed over for the conversion. Biggar may not be flashy but he is dependable as heck. As half time beckoned Tomos Williams was just a few inches too short to claim his own kicked ball in a move that would have claimed him the Wizard-of-the-First-Half award. Building Italian pressure and a slew of penalties on the Welsh line saw the red line unbroken, Wales heading into half time with a comfortable lead, 21-0 having enjoyed no less than 70% of the possession.
Italy had a speedy start to the second half but Welsh shirts usually stood in the way. Things started slowing down, the flow of play a bit like treacle at the 50-minute mark. The Welsh scrum machine needed oiling, too, but an Italian scrum just under the Welsh posts saw the red defensive line cohere. But the Italian attacking game was free-flow, running through the gears and finding space, with Wales increasingly playing in their own half. Time, if not to dig deep, then dig in a bit. Cue a slew of replacements including Cory Hill and Rob Evans to add forward power.
Tipuric did some super jackal work before Nick Tompkins’ jinking power-burst of a first try for Wales resulted from joined-up, intuitive interplay saw a team that had been on the defensive back foot putting its best feet forward. Rhys Webb’s appearance on the pitch saw a firecracker of applause. George North’s try was sadly disallowed after a finger’s breadth of a knock-on. Meanwhile whenever Tompkins got the ball he seemed to put on a mini sidestep masterclass, a mesmerising figure on the park just as Moriarty was a human piledriver.
Throughout the game there was plenty of promise on show, but there was sometims something lacking in the execution, with Welsh ball lost at turnover or knocked on or just lost. The bonus point was in question until the fourth try came in the form of George North’s fortieth, a bit of scrappy play rewarded when North grounded the ball with a bit of help from Alun Wyn Jones, who dragged the Anglesey giant over the line. Tipuric, meanwhile, won man of the match.
So was this the start of a new, vibrant Pivac era? There was plenty of imagination and intention on show but there was a bit of second half floundering too, something that needs to be ironed out before matching up against the likes of Ireland. But positivity certainly prevailed. And Josh Adams’ final minute, hat trick try sent fans away with the gladdest of hearts. Wales 42, Italy 0. A more than promising start.