The five-try, bonus-point victory at Cardiff’s Principality Stadium saw a much-changed Wales go second in the table behind already crowned champions Ireland and another bonus-point success in next week’s tournament finale at home to France would assure the Welsh of the runners-up spot.
A blistering opening that saw three tries scored in the opening 10 minutes left Italy well in the game at just 14-7 behind but from then on it was an all too familiar story as the Azzurri suffered their 16th successive defeat in the Six Nations and 12th in a row in all competitions by Wales.
This was despite Wales being reduced to 13 men at one stage after fullback Liam Williams and scrum-half Gareth Davies both received yellow cards either side of half-time.
Wales coach Warren Gatland responded to a loss to Ireland last time out by making 10 changes.
Taulupe Faletau captained Wales for the first time, with Gatland giving a Test debut to highly-rated Scarlets flanker James Davies as he looked to build squad depth ahead of next year’s World Cup in Japan.
Spectators in a crowd of over 65,000 beneath the closed retractable roof barely had time to draw breath at the start of the game.
After James Davies forced a ruck penalty, Wales kicked to touch for an attacking line-out.
The ball was worked left to Hadleigh Parkes who forced his way between opposing inside centre Tommaso Castello — who appeared to knock himself out in the act of trying to make a tackle — and Italy captain Sergio Parisse for a fourth-minute try under the posts that fly-half Gareth Anscombe duly converted.
– Joyful faithful –
Wales’s second try came just two minutes after their first.
As Italy made a foray forward into Welsh territory, Azzurri flanker Maxime Mbanda’s pass was intercepted by Owen Watkin, who surged and swerved 60 metres before sending in North.
The flyer had angered club side Northampton by not turning up for an English Premiership match last weekend, with Wales citing a hip injury as the reason for his absence, but he was back among a joyful faithful on Sunday.
Italy, to their credit, hit back in the 10th minute.
Lock Dean Budd won a line-out and the ball was worked across field. Matteo Minozzi, with precious little room to work with, evaded opposing fullback Williams and home scrum-half Gareth Davies for a try in the corner.
It was Minozzi’s third try in seven Tests and, with fly-half Tommaso Allan converting, Wales’s lead head been cut to seven points.
Wales thought they had another try when a fortunate bounce saw Davies collect Steff Evans’s chip ahead but the score was correctly ruled out by the television match official as he had been in front of the kicker.
An intriguing half ended with Williams sent to the sin-bin in stoppage time for a dangerous tackle on Minozzi.
But three minutes into the second half there were cheers as Wales lock Cory Hill scored his first Test try.
Davies’s charge down of Minozzi’s kick gave Wales a five-metre scrum and this avoidable Azzurri error was further punished when, from an ensuing quick ruck, Hill dived over.
Wales were down to 13 men when Davies was binned for a deliberate knock-on but it made little difference, with North and replacement Justin Tipuric going over for two more tries.
French referee Jerome Garces’s whistle denied North a hat-trick before Mattia Bellini managed a late consolation try for Italy.