Wales equalled their best ever winning streak with 11 straight wins as they struggled past Italy in Rome on Saturday evening.
Warren Gatland had made 10 changes after the victory over France in the first round of the Six Nations, keeping an eye on the long-term aim of the World Cup after spending a training week in Nice with a 31-man squad.
Nicky Smith and Jake Ball returned from injury, Aaron Wainwright, Thomas Young and Jonah Holmes made their first Six Nations starts, while Aled Davies and Dan Biggar were selected in the much debated half-back slots.
It was another replacement in Elliot Dee who made the first play of the game though, completing a successful jackal in front of the Italian posts just 30 seconds into the game, allowing Biggar to give the visitors an early 0-3 lead.
The hosts tried to get back into the game, with Angelo Esposito making a smart break down the left wing, but they couldn’t convert pressure into points before a strong Wales scrum allowed them to clear their lines before securing a second penalty in front of the posts for Biggar to kick.
He was then back on the tee a few minutes later as Italy crept offside, but while the away side were now 9-0 up, the dominance over possession and territory arguably deserved to have yielded more.
Frustration over this seemed to show as Biggar tried to make something happen from deep, faking to clear his lines before cross kicking towards Josh Adams, but Edoardo Padovani plucked the ball out of the sky and Wales narrowly avoided bringing pain on themselves.
The better side of Dan’s kicking game was on show a few minutes later though as a monster up-and-under was claimed in the Italian half and the visitors recycled quickly but managed to blow a three-man overlap against a disorganised home defence, the attack only ending in yet another penalty.
Eventually the lack of cutting edge would catch up with Wales though, as the home side powered back into the game with five minutes to go until half-time.
A midfield penalty allowed Tommaso Allan to kick to the corner and Italy battered at the door with a number of phases until flanker Braam Steyn managed to power over from close range, with Allan kicking the conversion to make it game on.
The Italian fly-half even had the chance to leave his side just two points behind at the break after Wales infringed firstly at the scrum and then at the maul, but his kick hit the points and the visitors maintained a 7-12 lead going into the sheds.
In the end the lead would be shortened to two points at the start of the second half instead, when Thomas Young was penalised on the floor and Allan had a much simpler kick for three points.
Wales were suffering once again from handling errors, while uncharacteristic mistakes from Dan Biggar as he attempted to force Wales forwards stunted momentum, coupled with a misfiring lineout, things weren’t looking good.
However, the team momentarily went back to basics and struck. Aled Davies carried down the blindside from a midfield scrum and made yards, before Adam Beard trucked the ball further forwards on the next phase.
Italy’s defence was now disjointed and Wales whipped the ball out to Jon Davies on the outside channel who released Liam Williams to break a tackle and offload for Josh Adams to cross on the left wing. Make the space then shift the ball quickly, rugby is a simple game!
Over the next 10 minutes some early Warren Gatland substitutions seemed to prevent Wales pushing home any advantage as the game lurched from set piece to set piece with each team trying to push their kicking game towards dominance.
In the end Gugliemo Palazzani pushed his kick into touch on the full and from the lineout Wales almost struck as Jon Davies put a dangerous kick through, Jayden Hayward made a mess of covering it and Davies was on hand to slide onto the loose ball and touch down.
However, in the process of collecting possession a minor juggle saw the ball knocked on, maybe not helped by the presence of team-mate Adams, and Italy were reprieved.
That didn’t halt Wales’ quest for a second try though, as a scrum penalty saw new fly-half Gareth Anscombe kick for the corner. The driving maul was pulled down illegally and on the free play the Cardiff Blues player chipped through perfectly for Owen Watkin to dot down, the conversing giving the visitors a 16 point lead.
With five minutes to go Italy made a late bid to get back into the game, Tommaso Allan cutting through a dogleg defence with ease and putting Edoardo Padovani over in the corner, but a missed conversion kept the hosts at bay.
Wales thought they had the last word when Thomas Young finished well in the corner after Gareth Anscombe and Dillon Lewis had combined in midfield, but the pass from one Cardiff Blue to the other was ruled forward and in the end a 26-15 scoreline was settled for.
In the end how the game will be viewed depends on your outlook.
As a one-off event it was a disappointment, Wales lacked a cutting edge in attack and the lineout malfunctioned badly as the forwards lacked a clear leader both in open play and at the set piece.
Italy deserve credit for an improved performance on their loss against Scotland last week, but a Wales team with that amount of quality, changes or not, arguably should have been able to win with more comfort in Rome.
However, the changes meant a number of players got valuable international experience ahead of the World Cup after a week spent replicating how the squad setup will be in Japan, once again improving on WalesOnline’s favourite phrase, ‘strength in depth.’
Realistically though, this second point will need to be re-affirmed by Gatland selecting these players again before the end of the tournament. If the likes of Young or Holmes are to really gain enough experience to be options in Japan, they will need more than just 80 minutes in a makeshift side against Italy.
Focus now shifts towards the England game where the recognised first teamers will likely be introduced, and with two wins it is a huge game for the squad. They need to increase their performance levels by a level or three to compete, the challenge is on.