AFP - Wales kept their Six Nations title hopes alive as Tom Shanklin scored a late try to lead the reigning champions to a 20-15 victory over a much improved Italy at Rome's Stadio Flaminio on Saturday.
Wales, whose side had nine changes from that beaten by France two weeks ago, never reached the heights they are capable of but instead had to grind out a win against dogged opponents who showed a marked improvement on the debacles of their three previous matches.
It means that Wales can still claim the title but they will probably need a comprehensive victory over Ireland in Cardiff next weekend to do so.
For the hosts this match allowed them to restore their battered pride from three defeats in which they had conceded more than 100 points.
"Italy played a very good first half," said Italy No 8 and captain Sergio Parisse. "It's very difficult to defend against Wales.
Parisse admitted that his side had made "some mistakes" late on.
"I'm very disappointed but the team showed (a positive) reaction (to three previous defeats). Today against a great team we played very well."
Italy established superiority in the scrum early on and on six minutes Wales were penalised for standing up with Andrea Marcato kicking over the three points.
Perhaps more significantly for the hosts, they weren't making any glaring errors, at least not in defence.
Wales were struggling to get much possession and when they did have it, Italy proved resolute in defence.
James Hook made a good break for Wales on 20 minutes and was presented with a kick at goal from the 22 after a high tackle but he screwed the ball wide.
However, with only their second piece of sustained possession, Wales went over the try-line.
They went through the phases in the Italy 22 before working an overlap on the left as captain Alun-Wyn Jones popped the ball to Gavin Henson who sent Shane Williams over for a try that Hook converted for a 7-3 lead on 27 minutes.
But after Gloucester lock Marco Bortolami had dropped the ball on Wales's 22 as Italy threatened, the home scrum made the difference.
Marcato kicked a penalty after Wales were again penalised for standing up in the scrum and when they went offside at a ruck, Marcato kicked Italy into a 9-7 lead.
There were only a few minutes to go to the break and quite apart from holding on, Italy knocked on the door at Wales's tryline for several phases before Marcato missed his second drop goal attempt of the game.
But at least they were ahead at the break, for the first time in this Six Nations competition.
The psychological difference that made could be seen as Italy came out fired up after half-time.
They even extended their lead on 58 minutes after Mirco Bergamasco and Gonzalo Canale stopped Williams in his tracks and Italy turned the ball over before Wales infringed allowing Marcato to kick his fourth penalty of the afternoon.
But two minutes later Hook reduced the arrears and on 65 minutes he landed a penalty from wide out on the left to give the visitors a 13-12 lead.
However, substitute Shanklin handled in a ruck and on 71 minutes Marcato kicked his fifth penalty to restore the hosts' lead.
Just as the Azzurri fans were dreaming of victory, though, Italy's old failings came back to haunt them and Hook sent Shanklin over in the left corner after Matteo Pratichetti had over committed himself in stretching for an interception.