Wales claim Six Nations victory over Italy
ON the weekend of the Italian elections, Wales kept the red flag flying in the Six Nations.
It may not have been a landslide success.
But in Rome central those lobbying for the Hymns and Arias party were not displeased on Saturday evening.
It has to be said the success didn't come with too many trimmings.
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The conditions were foul, particularly in the first half when Stadio Olimpico was lashed by a deluge of biblical proportions. Heavy, incessant rain fell out of dark clouds, with a wind thrown in for good measure.
It was more Rhondda in the heart of winter than Rome on the cusp of spring, anything but the type of weather associated with the Italian capital.
And credit Wales, someone had obviously taken the trouble to open the curtains in the hotel on the morning of the match and come up with the idea of tweaking the game-plan. That meant entertainment gave way to hard-headed wet weather rugby.
Jon Davies didn't touch the ball until the 44th minute.
He didn't send out a solitary pass and alongside him Jamie Roberts was hardly playmaker of the weekend, either, the stats showing the big Blues centre shipped the ball out just once all game.
Leigh Halfpenny, Dan Biggar and Mike Phillips kicked the ball 29 times between them.
Wales were that conservative you half expected Rob Howley to rock up with a blue rosette at the post-match press conference and laud the virtues of cutting the budget deficit.
But rugby is about doing what is possible, and Howley could argue that attempting to dazzle in heavy rain would have been asking for trouble.
Italy kicked almost as much as Wales, but they didn't kick as accurately. Biggar comprehensively won his duel with Kris Burton, while Halfpenny had a bigger boot than Andrea Masi.
This was the antithesis of the infamous performance against Fiji at the 2007 World Cup when the control centre of the Wales team went haywire and the players seemed to take it upon themselves to challenge the global masters of running rugby to a virtual game of sevens, with disastrous consequences.
Here, the gameplan was executed to the letter.
Biggar and Phillips kept the ball in front of their forwards and risks were kept to a minimum. The front row scrummaged hard, the back row tackled strongly and Halfpenny pumped over his goals.
Wales are becoming hard to beat again, and the most telling stat of the lot is that they have gone more than three hours without conceding a try since that calamitous opening 42 minutes against Ireland on the opening weekend of the championship. It is now 198 minutes since Howley's team had their line crossed, and Italy only had one serious opportunity on Saturday, which Tommaso Benvenuti contrived to mess up under pressure from Biggar.
Another big plus for the visitors is that they are taking their chances.
They gleefully accepted the one that came their way in Paris and they didn't have many more in Rome than the two they took.
They may not be pleasing the romantics but they are putting in place the building blocks for success and no-one can argue too much with that.
On the 8.30pm train back into the city centre after the game it would be wrong to say there was euphoria over the Welsh performance. More quiet satisfaction at a job well done.
It was certainly a victory Howley needed.
Pressure on him had eased after the success over France in Paris, but had Wales lost to the Azzurri then sharpened knives would have been back out for the acting head coach.
His side haven't become world beaters in the space of two games.
But they have momentum now and will head for Murrayfield a week on Saturday knowing that victory would set them up nicely for a crack at England in Cardiff on March 16.
The probability is England will have opened up too big a points difference to lose the title.
But if they come unstuck in their final game it would be a hollow triumph, like the one Wales experienced after winning the championship but losing at Twickenham in 1994.
Motivation never is lacking for the England game and the chance to deny England a Grand Slam will doubtless stoke up Welsh fires. It will be the chance to ruin England's season, something some supporters this side of the Severn Bridge might see as being only a shade less enjoyable than a Welsh Grand Slam.
England will certainly have to work for their clean sweep.
Wales have shown a resilience that deserted them for a while in 2012.
They could easily have allowed the misery of eight successive defeats to overwhelm them.
Instead, like a put-upon drinker confronted by bullies in a bar, they have stood up to be counted, rolling up their sleeves and battling their way out of a tight corner.
Underpinning Wales's second widest margin of victory in Rome was a big scrummaging performance from Adam Jones.
He had taken criticism for the first time in close on a decade after the game in Paris, when he conceded five penalties. At Wales's media call last week he was even asked if he felt under pressure.
Presumably the same question won't be coming his way next week.
Martin Castrogiovanni may have been put through the grater on the other side of the scrum, but Jones also generated huge power on his wing, repeatedly putting the squeeze on Andrea Lo Cicero. It was a performance that screamed with Lions quality; Warren Gatland would have been delighted. The whole front row went well, while 43 tackles from the back row did much to kill Italian moves in their infancy.
Howley faces another selection headache. Does he change a winning team? And if he does, how many alterations should he make.
Certainly, Alun Wyn Jones made an impact after coming on, while Andrew Coombs wasn't quite as prominent as in previous games.
But tinkering with the back row would be a gamble, not least because Ryan Jones is leading the side so well. Taking the captaincy off him after two straight wins would risk destabilising the side. And Justin Tipuric's admirers would argue he has done enough to retain his place in the team ahead of Sam Warburton, anyway.
Italy? They have some thinking to do. Track back 23 days and some were hailing a new beginning for them after the opening-round victory over France.
But the golden rule in sport is not to conclude too much from one game.
They missed the banned Sergio Parisse on Saturday but they had such problems with the conditions and the scrums that even had he played the result might have been the same.
Their coach Jacques Brunel praised Wales's precision and efficiency.
No-one praised their ambition.
Maybe that will keep for another day.