Rugby Union: England choke on Italian recipe

England 23 Italy 15
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The Independent Online
EUROPEAN RUGBY'S extended Six Nations family is scheduled to open the front door for business in 15 months or so and, if there are bound to be a few poor cousins living off hand-outs from the wealthy, there will be no earthly point looking for them amongst the chaotic splendour of Rome. Not, at least, unless England happen to be in town on an away trip. Events yesterday suggested that, even if Clive Woodward and company used the Vatican as a hotel, they would not have a prayer of beating the Italians.

Massimo Giovanelli, the Italian captain, said prior to the match that victory over England would earn his country "real respect". As it turned out, they did not need to win to be so honoured. The old-money aristocrats opposing them needed a late Will Greenwood chip-and-gather score to wrap up a result they did not remotely merit and had Alessandro Troncon, a consummate performer at scrum-half, been awarded the try he clearly felt he had completed, the visitors might well have been cracking open the Chianti anyway. "It was a try, a nice try," said Troncon, a touch sadly. Not according to the referee, Didier Mene, it wasn't.

At least England's victory saved the organisers of next year's World Cup a serious, if well-deserved, dose of hyper-embarrassment. England were guaranteed Twickenham advantage irrespective of yesterday's result - even in rugby, fair play is a Corinthian anachronism when commercial interests are at stake - and the Italians must now await the umpteenth official draw to discover where, and against whom, they will play their pool matches in 11 months' time.

True, England were responsible for the only tries laid before an unusually quiet and ultimately bewildered 15,000 Huddersfield audience. True, they were never headed. It is also reasonable to suggest that, in Paul Grayson, they possessed a tactical kicker every bit as accomplished as Diego Dominguez. He kicked all 15 Italian points and tried everything he knew to turn the screw during a second half that flowed relentlessly against the home side. But that was pretty much that in terms of English advantage.

Almost everywhere else - at the rucks and mauls, in the back row and in midfield and, especially, around the fringes - the Italians had a yard or so on their hosts.

If Troncon was the pick of an Azzurri outfit improving by the day, let alone by the match, there were performances to treasure from Cristian Stoica in the centre and Mauro Bergamasco on the open-side flank. "They've got some outstanding players," acknowledged Woodward, the England coach. "They did what they came to do and we really didn't cope with them very well. We couldn't put a pattern on the game, couldn't get going. And the longer it went on, the worse we became. At least our defence held up well. It was a nil try count, and that means a lot at this level." But Woodward was in no mood to go overboard on extolling the many virtues of Italian rugby.

"I watched their recent victory over Argentina and there was no rugby played," he said. "This was stop-start, too. The moment we put a boot on an Italian body to free the ball, we were whistled. Hence, you get a game with 47 penalties. If it had been a real World Cup game it really would have gone off. In a way, we should have sorted it out in the first five minutes."

Judging by the punching power of hard men like Walter Cristofoletto, who gave Martin Johnson plenty and then some at a major outbreak of hostilities in the 17th minute, England would probably have lost any punch-up they felt inclined to start. It is a long, long time since Italy have given best at the scrummage, and now they stack up almost everywhere else. They still concede penalties by the gross, but they are far more cute about where and when they chance their arm.

Grayson kicked a brace of early three-pointers and those successes should have been sufficient to settle whatever English nerves might have been jangling. That signally failed to happen. Italy took far more momentum out of the fight than their opponents and got back to 9-6 before the English loose forwards finally displayed some know-how by working a clever move off the back of a 40th minute close-range scrum to give Dan Luger a chance to slip onto Grayson's left shoulder and richochet over near the posts. At 16-6, the platform was there to be built on. No construction work took place.

Remarkably, it was Giovanelli and company who did the building. With Stoica, a real beast of an outside centre, wreaking increasing amounts of havoc in midfield and Bergamasco hoovering up loose ball around the tackle area, the English discipline slipped sufficiently for Dominguez to slot two further penalties and a smart drop goal. As the game entered its final 10 minutes, there looked only one winner. It was not dressed in white.

Greenwood's late intervention snatched the initiative away from the visitors. The Leicester centre had suffered a fairly evil time at the hands of Stoica, but when he found himself in space in the Italian 22 with only Cristofoletto in front of him, the chip option registered instantly on his fotballing radar. Once he got the kick in the right place, the rest fell snugly into place. If only the same could be said for the England game plan.

England: Tries Luger, Greenwood; Conversions Grayson 2; Penalties Grayson 3. Italy: Penalties Dominguez 4; Drop goal Dominguez.

ENGLAND: M Perry (Bath); D Luger (Harlequins), J Guscott (Bath), W Greenwood, A Healey (both Leicester); P Grayson, M Dawson (both Northampton); J Leonard (Harlequins), R Cockerill, D Garforth (both Leicester), M Johnson (Leicester, capt), G Archer (Newcastle), B Clarke (Richmond), M Corry, N Back (both Leicester). Replacements: G Rowntree (Leicester) for Garforth, 50; T Rodber (Northampton) for Archer, 50; R Hill (Saracens) for Clarke, 50.

ITALY: M Pini (Richmond); F Roselli (Roma), C Stoica (Narbonne), M Dallan (Treviso), L Martin (Begles-Bordeaux); D Dominguez (Stade Francais), A Troncon (Treviso); M Cuttitta (Calvisano), A Moscardi (Treviso), G De Carli (Roma), C Checchinato (Treviso), W Cristofoletto (Treviso), M Giovanelli (Narbonne, capt), C Caione (L'Aquila), M Bergamasco (Padova).

Replacements: O Arancio (Treviso) for Bergamasco, 60; A Castellani (Roma) for Cuttitta, 84; G Lanzi (Calvisano) for Cristofoletto, 84.

Referee: D Mene (France).