England 20 Italy 7: Ashton admits: 'We have a hell of a lot of work to do'

Back to reality after seven days of hype as combative Italians show up familiar frailties in Red Rose ranks still raw from autumn exposure
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The Independent Online

After the lord mayor's show... no banquet, but a humdrum return to the pedestrian precinct. The good news for England is that after two matches they sit this morning at the top of the Six Nations table. And that is about the extent of the good tidings. From a Red Rose point of view this was a turgid, depressing affair, in many ways reminiscent of the dire old days of the autumn, the only difference being that at least England won.

That and the continued rehabilitation of Jonny Wilkinson, who kicked five penalties out of five. England were made to look one-dimensional and very ordinary indeed by an Italian side who took them on up front and lived to tell a tale of what might have been had the Azzurri possessed a kicker of Wilkinson's quality.

"I may have got the balance of the game wrong right from the start," Brian Ashton, England's head coach, said. "If so it's my fault and I put my hand up. I have to pay tribute to the Italian forwards, who put a stranglehold on us in the second half. I said all week that this would be a difficult game for us and I'm not convinced many people believed me, but the evidence was there."

This was a very different England, and Wilkinson, from the bravura performance seven days earlier when they put four tries and 42 points on Scotland. "I stressed the importance of playing field position in the first 20 minutes," Ashton said. "It took us until the last 10 minutes of the first half against the Scots to get any dynamism into our game. It's pretty evident we've got a hell of a lot of work to do." Yesterday the word "dynamic" was not in their vocabulary.

Leading 14-0 after an unsatisfactory first half, the expectation was that England, who average half a century of points per game against these opponents, would kick on and score some tries. It was wishful thinking on an industrial scale. In the second half the Italians took 75 per cent of the possession and territory and outscored England 7-6. "Maybe we should have played a little bit more rugby," Alessandro Troncon, their veteran scrum-half, said. "Our plan was to keep it simple and we showed we can be a strong team."

Troncon, winning his 92nd cap, was named man of the match although it could quite as easily have gone to the outstanding flanker Josh Sole. England did not have a candidate for the award. Troncon had been recalled after Italy's dispiriting 39-3 defeat to France in Rome last weekend but elsewhere they were without two of their best players, the flanker Mauro Bergamasco and the centre or wing Andrea Masi. Against the French, Italy conceded five tries and managed to score a solitary penalty; here it was a try apiece.

"I thought the Italians might pull us into a battle up front and that's what happened," Ashton said. "This team has only played twice together and it needs more time to develop and get some familiarity. Expectations were far too high after what happened against Scotland. People can now look at us and see where we really are. It's time to reflect."

Ashton has some difficult decisions to make, not least in midfield, where England have not as yet found a suitable replacement for the innate rugby union skills of Will Greenwood. Will Andy Farrell ever cut the Colemans? Our friends in the north made much of the fact that a "broken-down prop" was good enough to play at centre for the world champions. After injury severely hampered his progress after his switch from a fabulous career in rugby league, Farrell was fast-tracked into England's elite squad and that has been the speediest thing about him.

A big lad at inside centre, Farrell looks like a forward and he has the pace to match. He did a couple of good things but dynamic he is not. Yesterday Wilkinson, who had a poor game by the standard he had set on his return the previous week, opted for the most part to kick a lot of slow ball, a task he did not perform that well, and apart from one or two occasions the wings were redundant.

England's lack of balance was not helped by injuries to Iain Balshaw and Mike Tindall. Balshaw, who scored a cracking try in the defeat to Argentina here in November, was playing his first Six Nations match since March 2005 but he limped off just before half-time with a recurrence of a groin injury. His medical record is getting to be as long as Wilkinson's.

Balshaw was joined on the touchline by Italy's captain and second row Marco Bortolami, who was shown a yellow card for the professional foul of bringing down a maul. England finally escaped from the stranglehold when they ran to the left, the ball going through Josh Lewsey to be taken on the bounce by Jason Robinson and he was in at the corner, the first time anybody had handled in either 22. It was the Sale wing's third try in two games since ending his premature retirement from international rugby.

In the third minute Wilkinson landed his first penalty, from 50 yards, and he became the highest points scorer in the championship after being tied on 406 with Neil Jenkins of Wales. By the time he had kicked his second he had taken his total points for England to 850. Six seasons ago Wilkinson scored 35 points against Italy and last week's 27 against Scotland made him second-favourite to become the BBC Sports Personality of the Year for 2007. As Ashton said, it is time for a reality check.

Have Italy, the whipping boys of the tournament, improved or have England disappeared up a cul-de-sac of their own making? A bit of both.

After the interval the Italy fly-half, Andrea Scanavacca, did a Jonny, although his goal-kicking was anything but Wilkinsonesque. Having retreated to have stitches inserted to a cut lip, the Calvisano player scored a try in the 66th minute after an incisive move down the left flank was given impetus by Sole. It was better than anything England managed.