Wales revive Six Nations hopes with Italy win
Only a fortnight after looking buried, a revived Wales has impetus and a winning streak going in the defence of its Six Nations rugby title after beating Italy 26-9 in rainy Rome.
Wales wore down Italy with two second-half tries and 16 points from Leigh Halfpenny's trusty boot for a second successive win in the championship.
Only two weeks ago, Wales went to France with last rites ringing its ears over its chances of defending the title. But it won in Paris to end an eight-test losing streak, and won at the Stadio Olimpico on Saturday to achieve a fourth successive win away from home for the first time since the tournament expanded in 2000.
Interim coach Rob Howley's squad still wasn't close to dominating like it did last season en route to the Grand Slam, but wins by any margin on the continent were precious.
Italy at home has also given Wales fits for a decade, and despite missing its suspended captain Sergio Parisse, was back in the same stadium where it humbled France this month.
But Wales did all the damage after halftime. Centre Jonathan Davies ran in for one converted try and winger Alex Cuthbert quickly followed to put Wales out of sight after leading 9-6 at halftime.
Halfpenny added four penalties and the conversions, while first five Kris Burton accounted for all of Italy's points with three penalties.
Howley credited his team for handling the conditions better.
"We adapted well and played aggressively," Howley said. "There was a lot of kicking in the game. Then we took control in the second half.
"We must have had two or three chances in the game and we scored two tries. It's a testament to the guys. ... The ball was very wet and greasy."
With the rain falling heavier in the first half, both sides preferred the boot to the hand, and penalties proved the key as the forwards were evenly matched.
"The first half was tough," Wales captain Ryan Jones said. "(The conditions) had a huge impact on the way both teams played. It was a testament to the way we prepared. I think we got it right in the first half."
Wales crushed a couple of scrums to start but Italy's scrum steadied by halftime, only to wobble again after the break. British Lions prop Gethin Jenkins and Adam Jones had the edge on interim captain Martin Castrogiovanni and Andrea Lo Cicero, who was playing his record-tying 101st test for Italy.
"Unfortunately, we struggled in an area that is usually one of our strongpoints," Castrogiovanni said. "We definitely need to improve in that area for the next match."
Neither side looked like scoring a try, and midway through the first half Italy centre Gonzalo Canale managed to trip up Cuthbert by the ankle along the right sideline with open space ahead.
Five minutes before the break, Halfpenny had his only penalty miss of the day.
In the 53rd, two Italy defenders botched a chip from halfback Mike Phillips and Davies scooped up the loose ball to run in unchallenged.
Less than 10 minutes later, Cuthbert angled across the defence to slide into the left corner, also unchallenged.
Italy's second defeat after opening with the win over France has left the home side battling again to avoid the wooden spoon.
"In the first half we didn't take advantage of our field possession," Italy coach Jacques Brunel said. "In the second half we had a chance at the start to get a try but we didn't control up front and then the match was decided a few minutes later.
"Our play with the boot was a bit inconsistent," Brunel added. "They were more precise."
Parisse missed his first Six Nations rugby match in nine years without injury as an excuse after he was banned for 30 days by the French Top 14 for swearing at a referee last weekend after being sent off.
Wales next visits Scotland on March 9, while Italy play at England a day later.