Cueto's hat-trick brings a smile to Robinson's face

England 39 - Italy 7
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The Independent Online

Six tries, half of them in the form of a hat-trick by Mark Cueto, got England back to winning ways, as indeed the fellow on the Twickenham public address was only too quick to point out. The multitude knew the facts, though - they cheered Cueto's contribution from the wing, and that of the rehabilitated Iain Balshaw at full-back, but there was plenty more to cause the brow to furrow.

The clarion call from England's coach, Andy Robinson, was to re-establish Fortress Twickenham. To beat Italy followed by Scotland here next Saturday is about as challenging as insisting Lenny Henry wear a silly suit for Red Nose Day, and not much to ask from the red rose. It is, however, where the world champions stand in their newly humble place in the global scheme of things. "I'm really pleased with the performance," said Robinson. "We always pick out individuals, but two of Cueto's tries were on the end of outstanding play, the kind we have been working on. We're building, we're moving forward. It's a step in the right direction."

The Six Nations' Championship went west for England in Dublin a fortnight ago. The wooden spoon, which must be heading Italy's way after a two-season break, was never a concern. What was wanted by Twickers' Barbour set was a scrum to make the opposition cower, and a line-out of menace and danger. England had neither, albeit the Italians' front row accumulated such injuries in their defiance that the last quarter was played with uncontested scrums.

Under the fresh captaincy of Martin Corry, a little taste of old England got the home side going. Balshaw, returning for the injured captain Jason Robinson, eased himself in with an early break. Then Marco Bortolami, Italy's captain, dragged Ben Kay out of the air in a line-out and Charlie Hodgson kicked a 35-metre penalty. When Balshaw fielded a fairly aimless Italian punt on his 22 and careered upfield with Jamie Noon in support to create Cueto's first try, England had 10 points in as many minutes, sufficient to prompt a "Swing Low" or two.

A points difference of only minus nine in England's three Championship reverses before yesterday suggested they are not too far from getting it right.

Seeking their first away victory in the Six Nations at the 15th attempt, Italy would take any points, any way. But Gert Peens, brought in to provide an accurate boot, hit a post with a penalty for not releasing in the tackle after 23 minutes.

While that no doubt hurt Gert, it was a slap on the wrist for England and their suspect handling. Corry charged off the short side of a scrum but Olly Barkley was smothered by Matteo Barbini and Andrea Masi. Then Hodgson missed a penalty from medium range - the Sale fly-half went on to post a return of worse than 50 per cent, though his four misses were counterpoints to some lovely distribution. The good news is Jonny Wilkinson is close to a comeback, as a substitute for Newcastle at Harlequins over the road from Twickenham this afternoon.

England needed tries to raise the spirits. They squeezed two out of the final four minutes of the first half. From a scrum in centre-field, the ball went left then right through Barkley and Joe Worsley, and from the ruck Harry Ellis fired a miss-pass to Steve Thompson, who wasn't about to let the lighter-weight Barbini and Masi stop him. Then Cueto was in again, after a move involving Josh Lewsey, Barkley, Worsley and Graham Rowntree. A slick pass by Balshaw out of a tackle did the rest.

But watching England on this form is like taking a weekend break in Margate after two weeks in the Caribbean. The sun had been shining on the world champions' defence, which had leaked only two tries in the Championship to date, but even that faltered five minutes after the interval when Alessandro Troncon darted in for the 16th try of his 89-cap career.

Peens converted, and HQ was grumbling again. Hodgson kicked for a line-out rather than for goal but Noon's pass to Cueto went forward. Balshaw suffered the same fate when he might have freed Lewsey. Still England pursued the wide route. At length, Balshaw got England's fourth try from Barkley's smooth pass. Then Corry took a line-out at the tail, Hodgson and Barkley worked a neat midfield scissors and Lewsey ushered Cueto in to complete his hat-trick, the first for England since Jason Robinson against Canada in the autumn.

Out of sight at 32-7 but a long way off being back in the groove, England made a raft of substitutions and Andy Goode marked his debut by converting Andy Hazell's first Test try deep in added time. A Goode finish, but another mixed afternoon.