“It’s really pleasing,” said victorious Wales coach, John Kear, after his side qualified for the 2017 World Cup by beating Italy 20-14, in a tense thriller at the Stadio Brianteo in Monza.
“If you’re going to achieve things it’s going to be difficult,” he said, “but the collective spirit, desire and passion were there for all to see.”
Kear, who led England in the 2000 World Cup and has also taken charge of France added: “We’d had a lot of adversity over the qualifiers. We had to bring new players in because of injuries, lost a half-back so had to reshuffle, as well as losing Rhodri Lloyd to a hamstring injury here early on, but we showed a collective will to get the job done and finished the stronger.”
Young St Helens centre Ben Morris, who made his debut for the Welsh the week before in the international with Jamaica, made a big impression, crossing for the opening try in the 15th minute after Fozard had broken clear and positioned him for the posts with an inside pass, Courtney Davies goaling.
For the next 10 minutes Italy enjoyed most of the possession, although Lloyd White’s kicks continued to cause problems, and on a third repeat set from consecutive drop outs, Colin Wilkie jinked onto a pass to score and Terry Campese levelled with the conversion.
Straight after, a fumbled kick by the visitors saw winger Justin Castellaro go over in the corner, with Campese nailing the conversion and then a penalty, after he was hit late by Gil Dudson on 37th minutes. But Wales hit back immediately with Walker picking up the ball from the back of a scrum 20 metres out and crashing over, although Davies went wide with the goal attempt leaving it 14-10 at the break.
Twelve minutes after the break Wales responded when Italy fumbled a White kick and Fozard swooped in, to send Andrew Gay over the line, and Davies edged them ahead with a terrific touchline conversion. Then just before the hour, on the back of Craig Kopczak’s break, Fozard was again the provider with a popped pass for Morris.
From that point, although it became a tough, physical battle, with Joe Burke suffering a badly broken nose, Wales dug in, and their travelling band of 200 fans grew louder as victory loomed. Ansell nearly uncovered record try scorer, Rhys Williams with a kick to the corner, and he also went wide with a drop goal attempt five minutes from time but the determined Welsh hung on.
“We refocussed at half time, on how we’d had success and defended well,” explained Kear. “That’s the basis of how we triumphed here.”
Kear was anxious to share out the praise. “Debutant, Danny Ansell coming off the bench played a prominent part,” he said, “but at 14-6 down going into half time we needed something and Anthony Walker came up with a special play. Some players, like Matty Fozard, have come of age in these games, I’ve been delighted to see how much he has improved, and Phil Joseph was a giant in the middle.
“I’m so pleased with the manner in which we’ve qualified,” he went on. “Some of the players felt they hadn’t done themselves justice in the 2013 World Cup and were looking to put that right. We’ll continue to monitor everyone who is available to play for Wales, but this bunch who have rolled up their sleeves and got their elbows and knees dirty, are already on the front foot.”
The Italians, who put on a day-long festival of rugby league which included their ‘A’ team going down 26-16 to Belgium in a curtain-raiser, were kept scoreless in the second half and ran out of attacking ideas in the closing stages, twice dropping the ball in the corner.
“It’s pretty disappointing, but I thought Wales were the better team,” said Italy head coach Cameron Ciraldo. “They had a lot more energy than us. We’re going to have to do it the hard way now if we want to make the final World Cup place.
“We’ll have to fix up a few areas in our game that we didn’t execute very well, bBut they were all very brave. We’d had a gastro virus running through the camp all week and some guys had lost four or five kilos. We didn’t know if they’d be able to play but they put their hands up.”