reports from Durban
England have ensured their qualification for the quarter-finals of the World Cup but their improved performance in eking out their second Group B win at King's Park last night was sufficient only because it was an improvement on their fortunate defeat of Argentina.
"England clearly are on an upward curve but on the lower part of it," Jack Rowell, the manager, said afterwards. This is not saying much, because almost anything would have been better than fumbling ineffectuality and downright negativism that had afflicted them last Saturday.
At least England discarded their unwelcome tag as the tournament's only tryless team and the two the Underwood brothers scored were as good as any by England in the past year. Yet in the difficult conditions of an unseasonal cloudburst they were once again unable, and to a degree unwilling, to put together the dynamic rugby of which they have talked so often.
By far the favourite tactic is still to hoof the ball downfield and hope, and there is precious little sign of the forward dynamism that is the essential prerequisite to releasing a dangerous back division. Graham Rowntree had a decent first full international but none of the pack had the wherewithal to open holes in a significantly tightened Italian defence.
Never mind the weather, it is such a waste. To see and admire England instantly recognising and exploiting the long-range counter-attacking opportunity which culminated in Tony Underwood's try was to appreciate that they should be doing much better than they are, and with far superior opposition to come it is profoundly concerning that they are not.
The younger Underwood's try required Rodber, Rowntree, Bracken, Andrew and De Glanville in swift succession to handle with ease and precision, just as Bracken, Andrew and Catt did in constructing Rory Underwood's. Marvellous as these moments were, they occurred in frustrating isolation and England were also guilty of crass defending which conceded a try to the Italians at the end of each half.
You could hardly say, therefore, that the Webb Ellis trophy stands glittering before them. On current form it will be as much as they can do to beat Western Samoa in the decisive pool match on Sunday and the problem is compounded by the addition of three more - Guscott (leg), Andrew (leg) and Rory Underwood (shoulder) - to the injury list.
None is thought to be serious but with Dean Richards and Will Carling already fighting to be fit to face the Samoans, the management may have no alternative but to field a weakened team on Sunday - which would scarcely be conducive to the team-building and cohesion which have become more urgent priorities than could have been conceived when England were winning the Grand Slam.
But then in neither game in South Africa have they shown domestic form other than in glimpses. Remarkably, this appears to be more mental than physical or tactical, because Rowell more or less conceded last night that his team needed to be in a quarter-final against Australia or South Africa before we would see their best. "Perhaps we looked too far ahead and went in against Argentina not as sharp mentally as we should have been," the manager said. "We have learned a hard lesson because both Argentina and Italy have played very well against us and taken us to the wire."
Tony Underwood's early try, converted by Rob Andrew, was followed by three Andrew penalties and one by Diego Dominguez before a desperate English blunder presented Italy with their first try.
The first half had 10 seconds left when Mike Catt's lazy clearance was charged down and regathered by Paolo Vaccari and with Dominguez converting England, hitherto untroubled, went into the second half under sudden and unforeseen strain.
Though this was alleviated when Rory Underwood extended his England record to 43 tries and Andrew added two more penalties, Dominguez pulled back another penalty and finally Italy scored another try, albeit not until injury time.
It was scored by Massimo Cuttitta, a pleasant touch in the city where he grew up, and was the product of a forward surge which went through England with alarming ease. Cuttitta, the Italian captain, later suggested that England had a decent chance of winning the World Cup. Not if they play like this they won't.
ENGLAND: M Catt (Bath); T Underwood (Leicester), P de Glanville, J Guscott (Bath), R Underwood (Leicester); R Andrew (Wasps, capt), K Bracken (Bristol); G Rowntree (Leicester), B Moore, J Leonard (Harlequins), M Johnson (Leicester), M Bayfield, T Rodber (Northampton), B Clarke (Bath), N Back (Leicester).
ITALY: L Troiani (L'Aquila); P Vaccari (Milan), I Francescato (Treviso), S Bordon (Rovigo), M Gerosa (Piacenza); D Dominguez, A Troncon; Massimo Cuttitta (Milan, capt), C Orlandi (Piacenza), F Properzi-Curti, P Pedroni (Milan), M Giacheri (Treviso), A Sgorlon (San Dona), J Gardner (Roma), O Arancio (Catania).
Referee: S Hilditch (Ireland).Reuse content