Sam Costelow delivered a near-flawless performance as he kicked five penalties and a drop goal to help Wales defeat Italy in their 2021 Six Nations Under-20s opener.
The Scarlets 20-year-old showed maturity beyond his age as he orchestrated a hard-fought victory for the Championship hosts in torrential rain at Cardiff Arms Park.
Italy had started the better of the two teams and deservedly took the lead through Ion Neculai’s try after both sides had a man sin-binned in a sign of what was to come.
But a penalty try and a couple of Costelow penalties before half-time saw Wales move ahead at the interval as Italy were left to rue two more players being shown yellow.
And while Wales also had to deal with 14 men when Harri Deaves was sin-binned, Costelow nailed three more penalties and a drop goal after the restart to secure the victory.
Italy emerged victorious the last time the two sides met in the opening round of the 2020 Six Nations Under-20s and the visitors started quickly at Cardiff Arms Park.
Indiscipline allowed the Azzurrini to kick to the corner as they set up camp in the Wales 22 but the home side were able to come away unscathed after ten minutes of one-sided pressure.
Frustrations then boiled over and play was halted for a brief period as both sides were reduced to 14 men, with Garyn Phillips and Lorenzo Cannone shown yellow cards as a result.
But Massimo Brunello’s side showed no signs of letting up and they were soon back within striking range of the Wales tryline again, driving the red shirts deeper and deeper.
It appeared a matter of when not if Italy would score and so it proved as Wales’ penalty count continued to rise, allowing Mattia Ferrarin to kick his side deep into opposition territory.
This time Italy made no mistake and a clever lineout move started by Tommaso Di Bartolomeo’s pinpoint throw was finished by Neculai as the visitors finally broke the deadlock.
Yet while the Azzurrini had the better of the opening 15 minutes, Wales suddenly came to life after conceding and it was soon the away side’s turn to fall foul of the referee.
Repeated infringements allowed the hosts kick to the corner and after Italy were adjudged to have brought down the subsequent maul illegally, Wales were awarded a penalty try as they took the lead.
Italy’s problems were further compounded as Nicola Piantella was sin-binned for being the central culprit in denying Wales from scoring, reducing the visitors to 13 men until Cannone returned.
Wales were unable to capitalise on their extra player as the scoreline remained 7-5 at the half-hour mark but Ioan Cunningham’s side did extend their lead on 34 minutes.
Sam Costelow nudged his team further ahead from the kicking tee before Italy were penalised again on 38 minutes as Filippo Drago became the latest player to enter the referee’s book.
Scarlets fly-half Costelow punished the Azzurrini from the resulting penalty, after Drago was sin-binned for dissent, giving Wales an eight-point buffer going into the half-time interval.
There was little to separate the two sides at the beginning of the second half as the scrappy nature of the first 40 minutes carried over to the restart.
Italy still racked up the penalties, however, and Piantella’s infringement on 48 minutes allowed Costelow to put further distance between Wales and the visitors from the tee.
But the Azzurrini were not alone in their indiscipline and Wales lost a man to the bin just three minutes later as the superb Harri Deaves was shown yellow to give the visitors some hope.
Manfredi Albanese converted the straightforward penalty to cut the deficit to eight points before both sides made a string of changes as the hour mark approached.
With the rain coming down and making running rugby difficult, handling errors became more frequent and a harmless chip forward caused Italy all sorts of problems on 62 minutes.
While the ball was initially gathered by the covering defender, it was subsequently spilled and Wales quickly seized possession as they closed in on the Italy tryline.
After moving through several phases without finding any joy, Costelow showed his maturity by taking the drop goal opportunity to extend Wales’ lead to 19-8 with 15 minutes to play.
Costelow added a further two penalties to take his own tally to 18 points as Italy struggled to maintain their discipline while the rain continued to make life difficult at Cardiff Arms Park.
The Azzurrini kept coming in the closing ten minutes but for every question Brunello’s men asked, Wales had an answer as the home side's rearguard remained resolute until the final whistle.
For as much possession and territory as Italy could muster, the visitors could not find a way through and it was fittingly left to Costelow to kick the ball into touch to seal Wales' victory.
PLAYER OF THE MATCH
Sam Costelow was outstanding for Wales, with his kicking nothing short of metronomic.
But it was back-rower Harri Deaves who took home the Player of the Match award for his defensive display.
His 19 tackles was more than any other player on the pitch in a hard-fought game, with Italy's Lorenzo Cannone (16) the next best, and he seemed to be everywhere during an all-action display.