WALES didn’t quite send out a statement of intent to their European foes but they won ugly against Italy to get their defence of the Six Nations crown off to a successful start.

Warren Gatland’s men avoided coming a cropper against the Azzurri in Cardiff but they made far too many errors in what was a scrappy, unsatisfactory affair.

A dramatic improvement will be needed if Wales are to keep their Grand Slam and Triple Crown hopes alive in Ireland next weekend but, unlike in 2013, they got the job done in their opener.

Wales made a dream start thanks to a fifth-minute howler by Italy debutant Angelo Esposito, who failed to gather Rhys Priestland’s grubber kick to gift wing Alex Cuthbert the simplest of scores.

Leigh Halfpenny expertly converted from wide on the right and he was nearly calling for the tee just seconds later when a counter-attack saw George North attempting a kick and chase only to be denied by the timely cover of opposite number Leonardo Sarto.

Italy were on the scoreboard when flanker Dan Lydiate failed to roll away, fly-half Tommaso Allan knocking over a 14th-minute penalty to make it 7-3.

The Azzurri recovered well from their shocking opening but a silly penalty conceded by talisman Sergio Parisse – gently pushing Alun Wyn Jones while the skipper was in the air at a lineout – was punished by Halfpenny’s ruthless right boot.

But Wales had a narrow escape after 35 minutes when number eight Parisse was denied by the TMO after knocking on while challenging North for scrum-half Edoardo Gori’s crosskick.

And the hosts made the most of their fortune when inside centre Jamie Roberts barged through midfield before putting midfield partner Scott Williams over, Halfpenny adding the extras for a 17-3 lead.

Wales were a tad fortunate to enjoy such an advantage but their luck ran out just two minutes after the restart when impressive centre Michele Campagnaro scored a super try.

Priestland was turned over in the Italy half and the ball was worked wide (with what looked like a forward pass) to wing Sarto who kicked forward before the Treviso centre showed pace and the footballing touch of Andrea Pirlo to cross.

Allan was off target with the conversion and that was followed by the rare sight of a Halfpenny miss from the tee before Allan struck the left post with an attempted three-pointer.

Rhys Priestland was close to jinking over but Wales were hindered by a lack of patience in attack against their resolute visitors.

The hosts were fortunate to be more than a score ahead but stretched their advantage with a quarter of an hour left when Halfpenny made it 20-8.

It was squeaky bum time when the Wales full-back’s pass was picked off by Campagnaro, who ran under the posts from 50 metres with Allan’s conversion making it 20-15.

But Halfpenny made no mistake when given a chance to secure the spoils with six minutes left by bisecting the uprights, leaving Wales to utter ‘a win’s a win’.

Wales: L Halfpenny, A Cuthbert, S Williams, J Roberts, G North, R Priestland, M Phillips (R Webb 67), P James (R Bevington 78), R Hibbard (K Owens 67), A Jones (R Jones 64), L Charteris (A Coombs 57), AW Jones (captain), D Lydiate (S Warburton 64), J Tipuric, T Faletau.

Scorers: tries – A Cuthbert, S Williams; conversions – L Halfpenny (2); penalties – L Halfpenny (3)

Italy: L McLean, A Esposito, M Campagnaro, A Sgarbi, L Sarto (T Iannone 76), T Allan, E Gori (T Botes 65), M Rizzo (A De Marchi 55), L Ghiraldini (D Giazzon 57), M Castrogiovanni (L Cittadeni 68), Q Geldenhuys, M Bortolami (J Furno 68), A Zanni (M Bergamasco 72), M Bergamasco (F Minto 57), S Parisse (captain).

Scorers: tries – M Campagnaro (2); conversion – T Allan; penalty – T Allan

Referee: John Lacey (Ireland)

Attendance: 66,974