England fumbled their way to the most humiliating result in their history against World Cup debutants Italy, in their warm up match for the tournament. The World Cup will not live up to English hopes and expectations if they perform as they did last night, when it took them until the 38th minute to get their noses in front of what is largely a team of second- and third-generation Aussie journeymen.
Even later in the game, they struggled for cohesion and could not break down a stubborn defence and extend their slender lead. Instead, Italy got a levelling penalty they thoroughly deserved and won it with Josh Mantellato's 78th minute drop-goal.
Their coach, Steve McNamara, is fond of saying that this is the best prepared England team ever. The evidence of yesterday's game was that their high altitude training camp in South Africa set them up for a sickening crash to earth last night. It left McNamara desperately looking for a silver lining.
"We certainly didn't play anywhere near how we need to," he said. "The first half was unacceptable from an England team. It's better for it to happen this week than next. Our mentality was all wrong and we were guilty of thinking forward to next week."
That is when England, on this form, face the terrifying prospect of playing Australia in the opening match of the tournament. They go into that on the back of their worst defeat, easily beating the loss to Papua New Guinea in 1988.
There seemed to be the prospect of an avalanche of points, but astonishingly the first ones were scored by Italy, the St Helens prop, Anthony Laffranchi, stretching out through some dilatory defence to tough down, with Josh Mantellato adding the conversion.
In players like the Minichiello brothers, Aidan Guerra and Laffranchi, Italy do have some genuine quality and experience at the top level. The trouble is that it is not spread evenly through their squad and that was always bound to tell against them, or so it seemed.
England for most of the first half were starting things that they were not able to finish off.That changed with a try that had Leeds written all over it; Kevin Sinfield kicking the corner, Ryan Hall winning the ball and, after a spot of juggling, Carl Ablett touching down. Sinfield missed the kick, leaving England behind. They were deeper into embarrassing territory when Dean Parata burrowed over from dummy-half, again exposing the home team's line defence.
They struck straight back, Sam Tomkins pursuing and scoring from the kick-off, although Sinfield hitting the post with a conversion he would normally put over in his sleep continued to hint all was not quite right.
In the teeth of an electrical storm of tropical proportions, Tomkins nipped over again two minutes from the break, Gareth Widdop's kick giving England the lead for the first time. With the evening sun out and a rainbow over the stadium, England had the chance to show their true colours, but first they had serious pressure from spirited opponents to withstand.
In that sense it was a good defensive work-out, but there was little else good about it. With the ball, in difficult conditions, England's handling was too often inept. With 11 minutes to play, they were punished by Ray Nasso's equalising penalty, before Widdop's knock-on gave them the chance for the decisive single point.
These two sides now appear together on the double-bill that launches the World Cup at Cardiff next Saturday; Italy against Wales with a real belief that they can win and England with the toughest task of all.
Earlier in the afternoon at Salford, England's second string, the Knights, beat a Samoa side quietly fancied to do well in the tournament 52-16.
England Tomkins; Hall, Ablett, Cudjoe, Briscoe; Chase, Sinfield; Graham, McIlorum, Mossop, Hock, Farrell, S Burgess. Subs used Hill, Roby, G Burgess, Burrow, Widdop, Watkins, Charnley.
Italy A Minichiello; Mantellato, Tedesco, Guerra, Saltonstall; Ghetti, Maccan; Laffranci, Parata, Vaughan, M Minichiello, Santi, Riethmuller. Subs used Falcone, Hiscox, Celerino, Gardel, Calegari, Cantrino, Ciraldo.
Referee R Silverwood (Mirfield).Reuse content