Wales vs. Italy: Score and Lessons Learned from Six Nations Clash

Tom Sunderland@@TomSunderland_Featured ColumnistFebruary 1, 2014

Wales vs. Italy: Score and Lessons Learned from Six Nations Clash

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    Michael Steele/Getty Images

    It wasn't the simple drubbing that many might have been expecting for this year's Six Nations opener, but Warren Gatland's Wales side had enough to start their title defence with a 23-15 win over Italy on Saturday.

    At the end of the day, though, the Welsh will be happy just to have begun their 2014 with a win on the board, setting them in the right direction to see off the bigger upcoming examinations.

    Jacques Brunel's men, who began the 2013 competition with a shock win over France, were unable to show quite the same initiative at the first time of asking 12 months on, but the lessons were aplenty for both teams, for better or for worse.

    Read on for a breakdown of Saturday's rapturous start to the 2014 Six Nations, as well as some of the bigger talking points produced by the Welsh triumph.

1. Welsh Back Five Establishing a New Era

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    Injuries and other absences have caused the Welsh back line to go through a stretch of fluctuation in recent years, but Gatland appears to have unearthed what could be a consistent batch for the next five years.

    Despite his move to Racing Metro, Jamie Roberts is something of an automatic pick for the starting team, but it's the younger, not-so permanent fixtures that encouraged against Italy.

    Nobody has to vouch for the undeniably world-class talents of back three Leigh Halfpenny, George North and Alex Cuthbert.

    However, with Jonathan Davies out injured for the time being, Scott Williams can look to make his own claim for a starting spot.

    It was in the 38th minute that the Scarlets man linked up in fluid motion with his centre partner to grab a second try for the home team, but there were options springing from every angle, Italy consumed by the attacking support.

    That's not to say there's not some more obvious areas in need of improvement. Maintaining the highest standards across the course of 80 minutes and cutting down their own profligacy will be priorities on that list.

    Rhys Priestland also featured prominently, albeit not always dazzling, and might be looked upon as the most debatable figure among more certain picks.

    Even by accounting for 31-year-old scrum-half Mike Phillips, Gatland's starting back line still had an average age of just 25.

    There's no reason that, including Davies in the mix, Wales can't lean on this extremely talented group for next year's Rugby World Cup and beyond.

2. Italy Have Tools for New Dynasty of Their Own

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    And it was a strong test that the hosts were forced to overcome, or at least a stronger assessment than what many will have been expecting.

    In the build-up to the match, it was noted how significant the size difference between Welsh and Italian back lines were, but a youthful Azzurri back setup held their own against one of the tournament favourites.

    Man of the Match Michele Campagnaro had a particularly promising performance with Brunel watching on, which included a terrifically crafted try in the opening minutes of the second period, before a brace was completed 11 minutes from time, thanks to a breakaway interception try.

    The Treviso starlet was one of three 20-year-old youngsters to have started in the backs, with fly-half Tommaso Allan and Angelo Esposito also just in the infancy of their careers.

    Allan is still showing some lapses in precision, but they're lessons he'll only improve with more experience. 

    That trio, along with Luke McLean (26), Alberto Sgarbi (27) and Leonardo Sarto (22), can seek to be the beginning of their own legacy under Brunel's tutelage.

3. Rhys Priestland Still Has a Fight to Prove Starting Shirt Is His

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    Priestland didn't put too many steps wrong on Saturday, and one might think that's enough for the Scarlets playmaker to hold down the starting spot under pressure from Dan Biggar.

    However, in order to match up with the rest of his back line in terms of production, the 27-year-old has to do more than just sufficient, his team require something altogether more superlative.

    Priestland did well to kick through for Cuthbert's opening try, albeit thanks to some terrible defensive cover from the visitors, but there wasn't many gasp-worthy moments, save for a 55th-minute break that almost led to a great solo try.

    Among the fly-half's faults, however, were several handling errors and an all too frequent rate of losing possession.

    Considering this is Wales' easiest fixture of the tournament on paper, Gatland is likely to still be considering his options, especially when one considers the side already have a quality kicker in Halfpenny.

4. Azzurri's Ascent Looks Set to Continue

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    Last year's third-place finish in the 2013 Six Nations table was a shock to the masses in what was the first tournament in which both the Azzurri and Scotland finished outside the bottom two.

    However, the result may no longer be observed as such an anomaly, with Brunel's team once again getting their tournament away with positives to take away, even if no points were clinched.

    The continental side have always been regarded as a team only capable of turning up at home, but the courage that was shown in a closed-roof Millennium Stadium is something to be lauded.

    No longer are Italy looking like the minnows susceptible to defeat, but are now closer to genuine contenders worthy of stripping their opponents of points.

    This year, the Italians can look at the top three as a realistic target for successive campaigns.

5. Alex Cuthbert's Bid for Top Try Scorer off to a Boom

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    It took less than three minutes for Alex Cuthbert to show precisely why he's regarded as the favourite to claim this tournament's top try scorer award among some.

    Showing some of the predatory instincts that make him the elite wing presence that he is, debutant Esposito only had to struggle in dealing with a Priestland grubber for a split second before the Cardiff Blues man had struck.

    There's a long way to go and a lot of scores to be made before the accolade is decided, but the 23-year-old has all the ammunition around him to make it his, showing some excellent form in his opener.

    Altogether, the speedster made two clean breaks and carried for 36 metres, showing good enthusiasm to shift outside of his comfort area and risk a stake by coming infield.

6. All Roads Lead to Sergio Parisse

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    It's no secret at this stage, but Sergio Parisse can't help but emphasise just how essential he is to any success his Italy team can hope of in these conditions as long as he's on the pitch.

    Whether it's making sure that he's the first option in the loose, dropping back as kicking cover, making one-handed line-out takes seem rudimentary or chasing the high ball up with a threatening pressure of his own, there's simply nothing Brunel's captain isn't capable of.

    A giant amongst men for the vast majority of his international tenure, Parisse was unfortunate to be pulled up for a try in the first period, adjudged to have knocked on in the process of forcing North into a handling mistake.

    It's a familiar storyline for the Stade Francais talisman, and while his Azzurri team continue to struggle alongside their European counterparts, Parisse, as usual, put himself at the root of their cause.

    As long as the No. 8 is fit, the Azzurri can rely on at least one superstar performer from within their ranks, Parisse carrying for a 60-metre total which was second only to centre Campagnaro, not to mention six tackles and two offloads from a staggering 21 running attempts.