A celebrated theatre reviewer once committed an extreme act of critical violence against a particularly dreadful play by saying it had been "unnecessarily well acted". The rugby England played at Twickenham against a particularly dreadful Italian side – no line-out, no midfield attacking game worthy of the name, not much of a defensive one either – was unnecessarily good. They would have won the first of their three home Six Nations contests by a distance, even without the contribution of Chris "Is it a bird? Is it a plane?" Ashton, although the near-capacity crowd would not have had nearly as much fun. France will be a very different proposition in 12 days' time.
It is not, however, beyond the realms of possibility that with Ashton in this kind of form – if he hits the deck with a terrible thud when completing one of his trademark runaway scores with a horizontal flourish, his career shows no immediate sign of coming to earth – England will ask questions of Les Bleus that the Grand Slam champions might find very difficult to answer. The last time the red-rose collective showed anything like this footballing capability in the championship, give or take the occasional brief flowering under Brian Ashton, was precisely a decade ago, when they put 80 points on Italy, 43 on the Scots and 48 on the French in consecutive outings. Come to think of it, the older of the two Ashtons under discussion was at the heart of that little adventure, too.
Brian Smith, the current England attack coach, used to describe himself as "a Brian Ashton man". The Australian is rarely heard describing himself as anything these days, so infrequently does he chew the fat in public, but on the evidence of the weekend, his rugby philosophy remains rooted in the idea that space + pace = points. It is not rocket science: certainly, Einstein would not have taken the best part of a creative lifetime to arrive at so obvious an equation. But if players are denied the licence to explore the full potential of a sporting formula, how does it escape the confinement of mere theory and emerge into the bright light of day? Happily, that licence has now been granted.
When Martin Johnson, the manager, was invited to acknowledge Smith's growing influence on England's attacking game, he chose to discuss something else instead. He spoke of the tweakings and tinkerings to the laws governing the tackle area – the shift of refereeing emphasis that allows the player in possession a little longer to recycle the ball, while denying the opposition the freedom they once had to interfere with that process. "It gives you so much more to work with," he said. "Under the old interpretations, no one was running the ball out of their own 22 because it wasn't worth the risk."
No one? No one in England, maybe. Elsewhere in the world – in New Zealand, in Australia, in parts of France and Ireland – good players with highly-developed ball skills have been pushing the boundaries of the possible for years, whatever mood the law-makers might have been in on any given Tuesday. Until now, the difference between Johnson's team and the better teams has been the difference between proactive and reactive rugby, between permission and proscription, between players in the gutter looking at the stars and players in the gutter looking at the gutter. The fact that England are playing a more challenging, exhilarating brand of rugby now is down to two factors beyond the tackle-area change: the emergence of Ashton and Ben Youngs, together with the entirely correct decision to select Toby Flood ahead of Jonny Wilkinson at outside-half; and, crucially, Smith's success in winning a few arguments behind the scenes.
Effectively, Chris Ashton is playing the free-roaming Austin Healey role circa 2001, only better. Of the four tries he scored on Saturday – only one player, George Lindsay, has scored more in a championship match, and that happened before the war (the second Boer War, that is) – precisely none had much to do with a mastery of the right-wing role in any traditional sense. He was at his most predatory when combining with Youngs and Flood in an attacking triangle in which the relation of each point to the others was constantly changing. The Azzurri needed half a dozen trigonometrists in their side, just to work out who might be where at the start of a move. As only Sergio Parisse, Alessandro Zanni and Mirco Bergamasco appeared capable of adding together two and two, this was asking a bit much.
From the moment Flood cut a meticulously calculated line on the flat-running Youngs and freed Ashton up the middle for a try so devastating in its simplicity that Gonzalo Canale could think of no better response than to pick a fight with the scorer – a terrible thing, desperation on a rugby field, especially when a contest is only two minutes old – Italy knew they were for the high jump. "It's one of the worst days of my career," confessed Nick Mallett, the Italy coach. "I never thought for a second we would play like that, for we were focused and wanted to do well. But in this game, things can go badly wrong. I don't suppose the Wallabies thought they'd concede 30 points here back in the autumn, but they did."
England scored most of their tries so easily, often with the generous help of the non-tackling outside-half Luciano Orquera, there must be some concern that they spent the afternoon living it up in a fools' paradise. And even here, in circumstances that could hardly have been more propitious, there were problems. The centre partnership of Shontayne Hape and Mike Tindall misfired once again, and unless Johnson finds a means of addressing this issue, the forthcoming World Cup campaign in New Zealand must surely founder. Effectively employed as two "stoppers" who leave the creative stuff to those operating directly inside and outside them, there is no guarantee Hape and Tindall will stop enough attacks in All-Black country to compensate for their inability to start them.
On the other hand, Johnson was right to revel in the performance of Alex Corbisiero. The 22-year-old debutant prop will have more testing days at the set-piece – the Italians could not even make this phase of the game work for them, despite their strength at close quarters – and not until he finds himself on the uncomfortable end of a five-metre scrum with Nicolas Mas of France whispering sour everythings in his ear will his value as a Test front-rower become clear. But despite operating on the front foot with everything in his favour, he hinted strongly on Saturday that England have finally found a loose-head successor to Andrew Sheridan.
True to his character, Johnson played down the implications of the victory. "We won't get those chances against France," he said. "And anyway, Italy seemed a bit flat to me. They'd put in a big emotional effort against Ireland, and it wasn't our job to make this trip an enjoyable one for them." Then he thought for a second, before adding: "There again, our game in Wales was pretty emotional, too." It was a fair point. If Italy were profoundly disappointing at the weekend, it was not for England to make excuses for them.
England: Tries Ashton 4, Cueto, Tindall, Care, Haskell; Conversions Flood 5, Wilkinson 3; Penalty Flood. Italy: Try Ongaro; Conversion Bergamasco; Penalties Bergamasco 2.
England: B Foden (Northampton); C Ashton (Northampton), M Tindall (Gloucester, capt), S Hape (Bath), M Cueto (Sale); T Flood (Leicester), B Youngs (Leicester); A Corbisiero (London Irish), D Hartley (Northampton), D Cole (Leicester), L Deacon (Leicester), T Palmer (Stade Français), T Wood (Northampton), J Haskell (Stade Français), N Easter (Harlequins). Replacements: S Shaw (Wasps) for Deacon 45; M Banahan (Bath) for Cueto 50; S Thompson (Leeds) for Hartley 50; J Wilkinson (Toulon) for Flood 57; D Care (Harlequins) for Youngs 57; D Wilson (Bath) for Cole 65; H Fourie (Leeds) for Wood 65.
Italy: L McLean (Treviso); A Masi (Racing Metro), G Canale (Clermont Auvergne), A Sgarbi (Treviso), M Bergamasco (Racing Metro); L Orquera (Brive), F Semenzato (Treviso); S Perugini (Aironi), L Ghiraldini (Treviso), M Castrogiovanni (Leicester), C Del Fava (Aironi), Q Geldenhuys (Aironi), V Bernabo (Treviso), A Zanni (Treviso), S Parisse (Stade Français, capt). Replacements: S Dellape (Racing Metro) for Del Fava 46; A Lo Cicero (Racing Metro) for Bernabo 50; Castrogiovanni for Lo Cicero 56; R Barbieri (Treviso) for Bernabo 56; Lo Cicero for Castrogiovanni 59; G Garcia (Treviso) for Sgarbi 61; P Canavosio (Aironi) for Masi 66; Castrogiovanni for Perugini 67; F Ongaro (Aironi) for Ghiraldini 71; Masi for Canavosio 76; K Burton (Treviso) for McLean 85; Canavosio for Parisse 85.
Referee: C Joubert (South Africa).
The match statistics
England 8 Tries Italy 0
England 8/8 Conversions Italy 1/1
England 1/1 Penalties Italy 2/3
England 0/0 Drop goals Italy 0/0
Phases of play
England 3 Scrums won Italy 1
England 0 Scrums lost Italy 0
England 10 Line-outs won Italy 6
England 1 Line-outs lost Italy 9
England 18 Pens conceded Italy 14
England 6 Mauls won Italy 4
England 20 Ruck and drive Italy 10
England 71 Ruck and pass Italy 59
Eng 234 Passes made Italy 148
England 15 Line breaks Italy 1
Eng 16 Possession kicked Italy 15
England 3 Kicks to touch Italy 1
England 81 Tackles made Italy 141
England 2 Tackles missed Italy 9
Eng 17 Offloads in tackle Italy 3
Eng 11 Total errors made Italy 6
England 97 In open play Italy 73
Eng 38 In opponent's 22 Italy 14
England 27 At set-pieces Italy 25
England 1 Turnovers won Italy 6
* Results so far Wales 19 England 26, Italy 11 Ireland 13, France 34 Scotland 21; England 59 Italy 13, Scotland 6 Wales 24, Ireland 22 France 25.
* Remaining fixtures
Sat 26 Feb England v France, Italy v Wales; Sun 27 Feb Scotland v Ireland.
Sat 12 Mar Italy v France, Wales v Ireland; Sun 13 Mar England v Scotland.
Sat 19 Mar France v Wales, Ireland v England, Scotland v Italy.Reuse content