So much for sentiment. This was supposed to be a day to celebrate two of Wales’s greats. Alun Wyn Jones and Dan Biggar earned their 150th and 100th Test caps for their country respectively. Cardiff’s grand arena was bathed in glorious sunshine. They were playing a team on a 36-game losing streak in the Six Nations. What could go wrong?
When Josh Adams scored a solo try with 10 minutes remaining he looked to have given his team an undeserving win. The men in red were turgid, uncreative and ill-disciplined. But Biggar’s conversion meant they had a 21-15 lead. They were back in control.
Then Ange Capuozzo collected the ball deep inside his own half with a minute remaining. The diminutive full-back put on the afterburners and galloped up field as if those around him were slogging through porridge. He slipped Adams’s tackle and then rounded Louis Rees-Zammit. Rather than dart for the corner he smartly passed inside to Edoardo Padovani, who skipped home under the poles. Paolo Garbisi’s conversion tore up one fairytale script and underlined another few could have predicted.
Wayne Pivac, the Wales coach, said his players put in an “unacceptable performance”. Adam Beard, Wales’ vice-captain, spoke for the team when he said: “For a lot of us this is our worst experience in a Welsh jersey.” Biggar, the captain, was equally damning and issued a warning to his charges: “It’s probably the last chance for some of those players.” But that is just one side of the story.
This is Italy’s first win over Wales after 16 defeats and their first in Cardiff. They had not won a Six Nations game in seven years. The calls for them to be cancelled and replaced by South Africa had grown to a clamour. Those voices have been silenced by a young team still a long way from its true potential.
They started brightly and were 6-0 up after a penalty each from Garbisi and Padovani. Their aggression on the ground seemed to take Wales by surprise and it took the better part of half an hour for Wales to find their groove. A turnover in their own 22m was swiftly moved up field with Rees-Zammit and Uilisi Halaholo leading the charge. Taulupe Faletau met Owen Watkin’s run and the centre stepped the prop Pietro Ceccarelli to score.
Welsh inaccuracy, though, kept Italy in the contest and two more penalties nudged the Azzurri 12-7 in front. The gap would have widened if Capuozzo had managed to dot down a loose ball after Garbisi’s cross-kick to Montanna Ioane. But Italy were good value for their first half-time lead in the tournament since 2019.
Wales were sluggish from the restart and needed a superb tackle from Adams to deny Ioane a try in the left corner. That seemed to spook the home side with Biggar attacking the line with greater ambition. He demonstrated his intent by poking a kickable penalty out for touch on 50 minutes. It proved the right decision as Dewi Lake bulldozed over from the resulting maul. Biggar’s two points meant the lead changed hands for the fourth time.
It changed again when Capuozzo and Ioane engineered a counter from inside their try area. Another penalty on the ground gave Garbisi an easy three points.
Wales looked rudderless for so much of the contest. An inability to win the physical battle at the gainline compounded a lack of spark in midfield. If they were to get back in it they would need an unlikely touch of class.
It came from Adams. Much maligned after his failed test at centre against Ireland, he gathered a pass above his head on 69 minutes with his heels touching the left wing.
He stepped inside with little on offer. He stepped again and again and soon had nothing but space as a barrier between him and the line. That seemed to knock the zeal out of Italy. Wyn Jones was held up over the line shortly after, though that seemed inconsequential as Wales were all but assured of a scrappy win.
But Capuozzo would have the final say. He would also have the player-of-the-match medal when the original recipient, Adams, gave it to him while he was draped in his country’s flag. It was a fitting conclusion to a game that ended with several Italy players in tears.
With an average age of 23, Italy’s is the youngest squad in the competition and is benefiting from a fruitful under-20 programme. Garbisi is 21. Capuozzo is 22. Michele Lamaro, the captain, is 23.
It will be little consolation to two Welsh greats or those who adore them, but this remarkable triumph might one day be remembered as a launchpad for higher honours.