Tracking ... Alex Cuthbert of Wales shadows Italy's Luke McLean. Photo: AP
CARDIFF: Jamie Roberts propelled Wales to a frustrating victory over Italy to keep alive hopes of a third grand slam in eight years.
Following three championship triumphs, Wales were overwhelming favourites to cruise past winless Italy at the Millennium Stadium. But dogged Italy made life difficult for the hosts despite their abundance of brute force and finesse.
Warren Gatland's men led by just six points at the interval thanks to a hat-trick of penalties from Leigh Halfpenny despite dominating both territory and possession. But Roberts raced clear for a break-away try on the hour mark to put Wales in a commanding position. Italy continued to disturb Wales but man-of-the-match Alex Cuthbert scorched clear at the death to put the result beyond doubt.
Wales on cusp of Grand Slam
Wales defeat Italy to make it four win on the trot in the Six Nations. Photo: Reuters
The Dragons can now look forward to a grand slam showdown with World Cup heartbreakers France in a week's time.
Wales' giant back line made a rampaging start to the encounter with George North breaking three tackles with his first carry and Cuthbert also making major inroads. Halfpenny opened the hosts' account with a long-range penalty on nine minutes after Sergio Parisse was penalised.
But Toby Faletau knocked on from the kick-off and Wales' reunited all-Lions front row were pinned at the ensuing scrum to allow Mirco Bergamasco to level the scores. Following an intense period of pressure, with Cuthbert running riot out wide, Halfpenny eased Wales back in front.
They continued to dominate affairs and pounded Italy with relentless waves of attacks. But they were let down by errors in the face of the visitors' committed defence in the final quarter. Roberts came closest to breaking the deadlock after latching onto a Faletau offload. But the burly centre was hauled down short by Luke McLean and Alberto Sgarbi.
Wales settled for Halfpenny's third penalty after Bergamasco was harshly penalised at the breakdown to enter the interval leading 9-3.
Wales were frustrated by Italy following the restart of play but Roberts struck with a long-range effort to settle the hosts' nerves. Alun Wyn Jones pounced on a loose ball inside the Welsh half and the ball was spread through Mike Phillips, Halfpenny and Rhys Priestland's hands for Roberts to slice through the Azzurri defence.
Halfpenny slotted the extras to hand Wales a 16-3 lead. They continued to cause Italy problems in attack but were dealt a major blow when the full-back was cruelly shown yellow after colliding with Parisse.
With Halfpenny in the bin, Priestland stretched the lead further on 69 minutes and Cuthbert rounded off the victory with minutes to spare. Captain Gethin Jenkins took a quick-tap and released Cuthbert, who went outside Fabio Staibano and raced clear before squeezing into the corner for the 24-3 win.