GEORGE North made it eight tries in as many Tests against Italy as the powerhouse Wales wing marked his first start of this Six Nations with a try-double in a 38-14 win on Sunday.
The five-try, bonus-point victory at Cardiff’s Principality Stadium saw a much-changed Wales go second in the table behind already crowned champions Ireland and another bonus-point success in next week’s tournament finale at home to France would assure the Welsh of the runners-up spot.
A blistering opening that saw three tries scored in the opening 10 minutes left Italy well in the game at just 14-7 behind but from then on it was an all too familiar story as the Azzurri suffered their 16th successive defeat in the Six Nations and 12th in a row in all competitions by Wales.
This was despite Wales being reduced to 13 men at one stage after fullback Liam Williams and scrum-half Gareth Davies received yellow cards either side of half-time.
Wales coach Warren Gatland responded to a loss to Ireland last time out by making 10 changes as he looked to build squad depth ahead of next year’s World Cup in Japan.
Taulupe Faletau captained Wales for the first time, with Gatland giving a Test debut to highly-rated Scarlets flanker James Davies.
“It’s what we wanted. To make that many changes and win comfortably was pleasing,” Gatland told reporters.
“We have our destiny in our own hands next week.”
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This latest loss did nothing to quieten the debate about whether Italy, as opposed to Georgia for example, deserve to be among the leading European countries who annually contest the Six Nations.
But defiant Italy coach Conor O’Shea said: “I am not here for me, I am here for Italian rugby.
“We deserve our place. We are doing everything that is right for Italian rugby — we will get there. Full stop.”
Spectators in a crowd of over 65,000 beneath the closed retractable roof barely had time to draw breath at the start of the match before James Davies forced a ruck penalty and Wales kicked to touch for an attacking lineout.
The ball was worked left to Hadleigh Parkes who powered his way between Tommaso Castello — seemingly knocked out in the act of trying to make a tackle — and Italy captain Sergio Parisse for a try under the posts that fly-half Gareth Anscombe duly converted.
Wales’s second try came just two minutes later.
As Italy made a foray into Welsh territory, flanker Maxime Mbanda’s pass was intercepted by Owen Watkin, who surged and swerved 60 metres before sending in North.
The flyer had angered club side Northampton by not turning up for an English Premiership match last weekend, with Wales citing a hip injury as the reason for his absence, but he was back among a joyful faithful on Sunday.
Italy, to their credit, hit back in the 10th minute.
Lock Dean Budd won a lineout and the ball was worked across field. Matteo Minozzi, with little room on the touchline, evaded opposing fullback Williams for a try in the corner and, with fly-half Tommaso Allan converting, Wales’s lead was down to seven points.
Wales had another try ruled out as Gareth Davies was off-side when he collected Steff Evans’s chip ahead.
An intriguing half ended with Williams sent to the sin bin in stoppage time for a dangerous tackle on Minozzi.
But three minutes into the second half there were cheers, not jeers, to acclaim Cory Hill’s first Wales try.
Gareth Davies’s charge down of Minozzi’s kick gave Wales a five-metre scrum and from an ensuing quick ruck, Hill dived over.
Wales were down to 13 men when Gareth Davies saw yellow for a deliberate knock-on but it made little difference, with North and replacement Justin Tipuric going over for two more tries.
French referee Jerome Garces denied North a hat-trick before Mattia Bellini managed a late consolation try for Italy.