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Sam Warburton display bolsters Wales' options

Sam Warburton races away from the Italian defence
Flanker Sam Warburton captained Wales at youth level rugby

By Sean Davies
BBC Sport at the Millennium Stadium

In many ways the lessons of Wales' comfortable 33-10 win over Italy are obvious - when they have their best players on show, they are a useful unit.

"We had two world-class players in Gethin Jenkins and Mike Phillips back and they just make a massive difference," said coach Warren Gatland.

Jenkins rampaged around in the loose, closing down drop-goals and smashing into tackles, while Phillips was all spike and aggression, igniting the fire that had burned spasmodically in the Dragons thus far in 2010.

Mike Phillips
Returning Wales scrum-half Mike Phillips was all spike and aggression

"We got our marquee players back and the difference was there for all to see," said defence coach Shaun Edwards.

"We saw the real Wales, they made an impact on offence and defence. That was the Wales of 2008.

"We've always known that deep down we've got a very good first XV, what we need to see is a build-up of pressure below that."

Stalwart fly-half Stephen Jones and centre James Hook also impressed as the outgunned Azzurri were put to the sword, but it is another British and Irish Lions star who will be feeling that pressure rise.

Wales' most-capped forward Martyn Williams had yielded his place to Cardiff Blues team-mate Sam Warburton.

The 21-year-old won his first cap in the United States of America last summer when Williams was on Lions duty in South Africa.

The pupil was given a start against Samoa last autumn and faithfully understudied the master from the bench in the first four Six Nations games.

Ahead of Warburton's first Championship start, the talk was again of managing Williams' work-load, nursing the 34-year-old towards his 100th cap and giving his younger colleague game time.

Stephen Jones

Highlights - Wales 33-10 Italy

Warburton himself insisted that Williams remained Wales' number one number seven, but there were no signs of meekness in the open-side's play.

The youngster ripped into the Azzurri from the outset, smashing the rucks and freeing fellow Six Nations debut-maker Tom Prydie with a delightful pass out wide.

The Blues man's heavy tackling was also evident and near the end, only a desperate ankle-tap denied him a richly-deserved try when he ran another delightful angle in support of Hook.

"He has not had many starts and was stepping into the shoes of one of our greats, but Sam Warburton had a fantastic game," said ex-Wales captain and Williams' former back-row partner Colin Charvis after the game.

Gatland added: "Sam had a very strong, solid game at seven.

"He was strong defensively, he carried well and ran a really nice line when James [Hook] made his break - that's something we've been working on."

So is this the end of the road for Williams?

Professional display pleases Gatland

The 95-cap Pontypridd man has been written off before - and there is reason aplenty to suggest that he will fire back once again.

Before the final round of games, Williams was second only to Ireland number eight Jamie Heaslip in the number of turnovers won in the Championship.

The flanker suffered in the four opening games from Wales' lack of go-forward and a poor balance in the back row.

Gatland started the tournament with a number eight, Andy Powell, on the blind-side, while the incumbent eight, captain Ryan Jones, has been arguably playing more like a six.

Powell's replacement Jonathan Thomas has been playing his regional rugby at lock, but Gatland insists his Test future is at blind-side.

Having re-acquainted himself with the role, Thomas had his best game of the Six Nations against Italy.

606: DEBATE
Saarraaahhh

Ryan Jones, having rested the calf that has troubled him all tournament, gave a hard-grafting display against Italy, with Warburton on hand to fulfil many of the traditional ball-carrying duties of a number eight.

Warburton also had the support of back-row wannabes Jenkins and Phillips, who smashed into the Azzurri at every opportunity.

With the impressive Gareth Delve and returning Dafydd Jones also to come into the picture for the summer tour, it seems that the back row will be one of Wales' most hotly-debated selection issues.

If fit, there is little doubt that Williams will also be there, that he will reach his 100 caps and be a major player in Wales' 2011 World Cup campaign.

But - for the first time since Charvis was in his pomp - the magnificent seven may no longer be an automatic choice for his country.



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see also
Wales 33-10 Italy
20 Mar 10 |  Rugby Union
Wales v Italy match stats
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Wales v Italy photos
20 Mar 10 |  Rugby Union
Wales back Williams to make 100
17 Mar 10 |  Welsh
Williams intends to defy critics
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Ireland 27-12 Wales
13 Mar 10 |  Rugby Union
Wales 20-26 France
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Wales 31-24 Scotland
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England 30-17 Wales
06 Feb 10 |  Rugby Union
Wales' rugby fixtures
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Wales' rugby results, 2009/10
12 Jul 09 |  Welsh
BBC Sport Wales coverage
03 Oct 11 |  Wales
Rugby union positions guide
05 Feb 07 |  Laws & Equipment


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