Wales have suffered a major double injury blow two weeks before the start of the Rugby World Cup as star fullback Leigh Halfpenny and halfback Rhys Webb were both carried off on stretchers in an unconvincing 23-19 win against Italy in Cardiff on Saturday.
Webb sustained a suspected broken ankle in the first half after falling awkwardly at a ruck. And as if the sight of his first-choice playmaker leaving the field was not bad enough, Wales coach Warren Gatland then saw British and Irish Lions star Halfpenny follow.
Halfpenny’s right knee, already heavily strapped, gave way as he moved to collect a kick 12 minutes from time.
Gatland and Wales now face an anxious wait for news on two of their star players, having already lost centre Jonathan Davies to a knee injury at the start of the summer.
Wales, who are in Australia’s qualifying group for the showpiece event which begins on September 18, failed to build on the confidence gained from victory over Ireland in Dublin seven days earlier and were behind inside just two minutes.
Italy captain Sergio Parisse, back for the first time in the warm-up games, picked off Alex Cuthbert’s pass intended for Taulupe Faletau as Wales threatened to score.
Parisse galloped 70 metres upfield before he was finally hauled down just short of the try line by Scott Williams. However, Italy were quickly in support and wing Leonardo Sarto surged through Cuthbert on the line to score from close range.
Tommaso Allan missed with the conversion but slotted a penalty to hand Italy a surprise ten-point lead after as many minutes in Cardiff.
Wales’s response was swift and emphatic with man of the match Scott Williams the architect.
Twice the centre was involved, first when he beat opposite number Gonzalo Garcia to start the move. Sam Warburton, Jake Ball and Ken Owens all followed before Williams fired a pass out wide to hand George North an easy finish on 13 minutes, his 23rd in Test rugby.
Halfpenny missed the conversion but kicked a penalty that was soon cancelled out by Allan’s second effort, before half-time.
Wales, under-pressure at the set-piece for much of the first half, began the second period in far brighter fashion.
Halfpenny kicked two penalties after the break to hand Wales the lead for the first time on 62 minutes, but Faletau again failed to collect the re-start and Carlo Canna’s drop goal levelled the scores again.
A further two Halfpenny penalties saw Wales lead 20-14 following an immediate impact off the bench by Ross Moriarty only for Welsh fortunes to be struck once again.
Halfpenny, who passed 500 points for Wales in the game, was left punching the ground in frustration as he waited to be carried off the pitch as a stunned 52,000 fans watched on in horror.
Dan Biggar took over the kicking duties and landed a penalty five minutes from time.
But having opened the scoring, Italy also had the last say when replacement Guglielmo Palazzani barged through Matthew Morgan on the line to score.
The conversion sailed wide and Wales were winners, but it hardly felt like a victory given the potential loss of two key players.