Published: Sunday February 24, 2013 MYT 11:01:00 AM
Howley hails Wales as title defence remains intact
ROME: Wales interim coach Rob Howley hailed the flexibility of his players as the Six Nations champions maintained their title defence hopes with a 26-9 victory over Italy.
Despite a 16-6 win over France last time out, Wales came into their third game of the series with question marks hovering - mainly because that win brought an end to seven straight defeats.
For the sizeable Welsh support in Rome it was a nervous day at a rain-soaked Olympic Stadium after the visitors went in for half-time leading only 9-6 after a flurry of penalties for both sides.
But after Tomasso Benvenuti missed a golden chance to give Italy the first try of the match early after the restart, Wales regrouped to score two tries through Jonathan Davies and Alex Cuthbert.
Leigh Halfpenny, who had kicked all three of Wales's penalties in the first half - while Kris Burton put two penalties over for the Azzurri - converted both tries and went on to add a further penalty to finish on 16 points.
Wales next face Scotland at Murrayfield on March 9 and host unbeaten England a week later at the Millennium Stadium for what pundits have already labelled the championship title-decider.
Ahead of those challenges, Howley applauded his side's ability to adapt as periodic downpours in the first half ended all hopes for a game of open, flowing rugby.
"There weren't always going to be opportunities in a game like that and probably the conditions suited Italy," said Howley, acting as head coach after Warren Gatland took over Lions coaching duties.
"The deluge that came in the first half as well meant that the ball was very greasy and it was difficult under foot. We had to be flexible and change our gameplan a little bit.
"The second half was all about composure and patience. We were clinical... and took our opportunities."
Wales dominated at the scrum and Halfpenny's kicking, despite some testing conditions and angles, was spot-on.
Howley added: "I thought our kicking game was exceptional, putting Italy back in their own 22 gained a lot of benefits.
"But to come away winning 26-9 is something which I would have taken at the beginning of the game."
Wales' sixth consecutive victory over the Azzurri was also their fourth consecutive away win for Wales in the tournament - a feat they last achieved in 1979.
For the hosts, it was a harsh return to reality after the euphoria of a deserved 23-18 win over France at the Olympic Stadium in near perfect conditions three weeks ago.
Italy next succumbed to a 34-10 defeat against a clinical Scotland at Murrayfield, and on Saturday gained little reward for a performance which left head coach Jacques Brunel mystified.
Italy were without captain and influential No 8 Sergio Parisse, who last week was handed a 30-day ban for insulting a referee while playing for French club side Stade Francais.
He was replaced by Fijian-born No 8 Manoa Vosawai, and while he proved efficient Parisse's absence appeared to tell as the hosts struggled against an astute Welsh defence.
Brunel made a series of replacements, but Italy were later penalised when Martin Castrogiovanni, standing in as captain for Parisse, was sin-binned for persistent infringements at the scrum.
"I don't think the attitude of the players was the problem," said Brunel.
"We didn't manage the game well, especially in the first half. We didn't put them under pressure, our kicking was irregular and Wales were more precise.
"Their kicking was better and Wales were generally more efficient. "Our game just wasn't there, it seemed. You could say we struggled more than the Welsh did in these conditions."
Italy face England at Twickenham on March 10 before capping their tournament by hosting Ireland six days later.
After their performance - and England's dismantling of France which kept their Grand Slam hopes alive - it seemed an understatement when a sheepish Castrogiovanni said: "Our next game won't be easy." - AFP