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Wales opens 6 Nations defense beating Italy 23-15

February 1, 2014

CARDIFF, Wales (AP) — Wales survived a second-half fightback by Italy to launch the defense of its Six Nations title with an unconvincing 23-15 win at Millennium Stadium on Saturday.

First-half tries by Alex Cuthbert and Scott Williams combined with flawless kicking by Leigh Halfpenny to give the Welsh a 17-3 lead at the break.

Unlucky to be so far behind, Italy dominated the second half, with Michele Campagnaro scoring two tries to leave his team just five points behind with 11 minutes left.

However, another penalty by Halfpenny ensured Wales preserved its unbeaten home record against the Italians and saw the fullback finish the match with a personal haul of 13 points.

“It will focus the minds for next week,” said Wales coach Warren Gatland, referring to Saturday’s match in Ireland. “It wasn’t an easy run-out — it was tough, which was the way we wanted it.”

The Welsh are seeking an unprecedented third straight title since the tournament expanded in 2000, and have been installed as favorites by most pundits and bookmakers.

Yet they were given a real scare by Italy, and with the score at 20-15 after Campagnaro’s second try, there was a real danger that Wales would lose its opening match — like it did last year to Ireland.

In the end, Wales limped to victory and there were muted celebrations by the players after the final whistle.

“We certainly made it hard for ourselves,” Wales center Jamie Roberts said. “We have to tighten up those mistakes in our game. If we don’t, then we’ll lose against Ireland.”

It had all looked so different after just four minutes, when covering winger Angelo Esposito failed to gather a grubber kick by Wales flyhalf Rhys Priestland. The ball slithered through into the in-goal area and the inrushing Cuthbert had the simple task of collecting and diving over for a try that was converted by Halfpenny.

The Italians didn’t buckle, though. And after Allan and Halfpenny traded penalties to leave the score 10-3 after 29 minutes, Sergio Parisse was denied a try in the 35th by the video referee, who adjudged the Italy captain to have knocked on as he challenged for a high ball with George North.

Somewhat against the run of play, Wales scored its second try three minutes later when Roberts broke a tackle in midfield before passing inside to center partner Williams, who cantered over to ground near the posts.

Italy’s comeback was launched in the 43rd, though, when Campagnaro chased down Leonardo Sarto’s smart kick down the line and dived over just before the ball went dead. Crucially, Allan missed the conversion, then a penalty in the 50th.

Halfpenny booted another penalty in the 67th but blotted his performance by sending over a floated pass that was intercepted by Campagnaro, who raced clear from inside his own half to dive over.

Italy couldn’t complete the recovery, and remains with just one away win in the Six Nations — at Scotland.

“As a captain, I am very proud of what the youngsters achieved today,” Parisse said. “They were facing some of the most talented backs on the international stage, but they showed they can compete at this level.”

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