An England team selected to suit their burgeoning young talent, a devastatingly predatory try-scorer and the way the laws are presently refereed made meatballs of an Italian side whose resolve lasted about as long as it took Chris Ashton to score the first of his four tries, half his side's total in a one-sided jamboree.
This old ground has seen Italy crumble before; it has seen Nick Easter, the England No 8, score four tries in a World Cup warm-up against Wales in 2007. Not since Ronnie Poulton in the last match before the First World War had an Englishman performed the feat in the Championship. It feels as if all sorts of records are opening up to Ashton, the likeable Wiganer who has nine tries in nine Tests and, after his double in Cardiff, has scored six in this year's Six Nations alone.
Watching England has become fun again. It does not mean they will win the Championship or the Grand Slam; the French or the Irish among the opponents still to be met are capable of replicating and matching the red-rose style of a homogenous back row and quick ball for the back three. But Twickenham man and woman prefers it this way. The vivacity of Ben Youngs and Toby Flood at half-back, giving Ashton, Mark Cueto and Ben Foden the encouragement to try their luck in channels narrow and wide, is a far cry from the stultifying stuff of last season. Italy were handled capably in the scrum by Dan Cole and the debutant, Alex Corbisiero, and the Azzurri line-out lost a horrendous nine of their own throws.
Ashton broke his barely serious promise to Johnson not to ground the ball one-handed – after a mere two minutes and six seconds. A series of Italian phases had got them nowhere, and a snipe by Youngs followed by a 20-metre gallop from Flood showed the umbilical understanding of the Leicester club-mates and gave Ashton a run-in.
With James Haskell and Tom Wood divvying up the flanking duties and the tackling of the Italian midfield timidly ineffective, England kept their foot on the blue-jerseyed chests, when under different captaincy and the different attitude of the recent past they might have retreated into conservatism. With a 10-6 lead after two Mirco Bergamasco penalties and a penalty and conversion by Flood, they had three tries in 11 minutes, by Ashton, Cueto and Mike Tindall, the skipper. All came from the line-out.
Ashton pirouetted away from Bergamasco after Shontayne Hape brushed off Luciano Orquera; Cueto, to his immense and obvious relief after no tries in the previous 18 Tests, took Flood's inside pass after Cole and Dylan Hartley had done the spadework. And Easter, with a side-door pass, was Tindall's provider. There were errors here and there, and a referee who observed the letter of the law after the tackle pinged both teams for holding on or for not allowing the tackled player to release. The leeway to play was all good for England, and if Easter had a couple of dozy episodes it did not matter much.
Italy were a prop short due to Martin Castrogiovanni's yellow card for preventing a quick tap when they kicked a 52nd-minute penalty beyond England's 22, a line hitherto defended by the home side like North Korean border guards. But the line-out went astray off Sergio Parisse's fingertips and Haskell and the replacement hooker, Steve Thompson, burst upfield, where Flood's inside pass and Matt Banahan's link gave Ashton, off a ruck, his third try. Flood, who had not missed, converted for 38-6 before Danny Care and Jonny Wilkinson were given more than 20 minutes at Nos 9 and 10.
Almost immediately Wilkinson was lining up a conversion of Care's easily taken try: 45-6.
Fair play to Parisse, who fished a ball from an England ruck in the 67th minute but a duff kick later the position was gone. Finally, Italy got something right. Their replacement hooker, Fabio Ongaro, scored a try, riding shotgun to a line-out drive. The crowd applauded, then cheered Haskell's run for a seventh home try. Their true hero was Ashton, who finished off a break by Banahan in the 76th minute with another finger-pointing dive.
Johnson went part-way to joining in the fun. "We had no substitutes left but I was going to put his [Ashton's] number up anyway. I told him it was an interesting way to end your career." Then, more seriously: "He's a predator. He gets in the right places and scores tries." But wait. France, the Grand Slam champions, will be here a week on Saturday. "Do we have to be better?" said Johnson. "Yes, of course we do. A lot better."
England B Foden; C Ashton, M Tindall (capt), S Hape, M Cueto (M Banahan, 49); T Flood (J Wilkinson, 55), B Youngs (D Care, 55); A Corbisiero, D Hartley (S Thompson, 49), D Cole (D Wilson, 61), L Deacon (S Shaw, 45), T Palmer, T Wood (H Fourie, 61), N Easter, J Haskell.
Italy L McLean (K Burton, 78); A Masi (P Canavosio, 61-70), G Canale, A Sgarbi (G Garcia, 58), M Bergamasco; L Orquera, F Semenzato; S Perugini (Castrogiovanni, 63), L Ghiraldini (F Ongaro, 66), M Castrogiovanni (A Lo Cicero, 56), CA Del Fava (S Dellape, 45), Q Geldenhuys, V Bernabo (Lo Cicero, 49-55; R Barbieri, 55), S Parisse (capt; Canavosio, 78), A Zanni.
Referee C Joubert (South Africa).
Tries: Ashton 4, Cueto, Tindall, Care, Haskell
Cons: Flood 5, Wilkinson 3
Pens: Bergamasco 2
England's man-for-man marking
Ben Foden 7/10
Had a remarkably quiet time of it, given the fun that was being had by the other members of the back three. Might have had an interception try later on, but he dropped it.
Mark Cueto 8/10
A good try after 18 Tests without one, arrowing in off his wing as part of a move that reminded this marker,who doesn't get out much, of Jon Sleightholme against Ireland in 1996. That move, off Paul Grayson, was called 'Pizza Hut'. This one was the pizza de resistance – sorry – in a pleasingly spicey performance.
Mike Tindall 7/10
Recipient of an early Easter egg, a sweet try hatched by the No8 ofthe same name. Had the odd comparatively unsubtle touch – one short pass to Cueto practically knocked the wing off his feet – but he led his team well.
Shontayne Hape 7/10
Pretty good, with breaks andoffloads against a demoralised and, consequently, disorganised defence. Penalised at a couple of rucks, as usual.
Chris Ashton 9.5/10
This cynical hack would like to find something to fault, but he didn't give away any penalties (see above) and his kicking was good. Maybe the swallow dive he'd promised not to do was a bit annoying... no, not really. Superb.
Toby Flood 8/10
Very good indeed. Has an old-fashioned angularity about him but his distribution flows smoothly and it must be nice to know that when he breaks, as he will, Ashton will be on his shoulder. Hasn't missed a kick yet.
Ben Youngs 8/10
It would be tempting to say the roar when he and Flood went off was for one of the men replacing them, Mr Wilkinson, if it didn't seem obvious that England have found a half-back pair to take them to the 2015 World Cup. Sharp, quick, bright. Excellent.
Alex Corbisiero 7/10
A strong debut, helped by the game being so open that there were only three scrums. At those he dealt well with Martin Castrogiovanni, an individual so medieval-looking he could have been written by Umberto Eco.
Dylan Hartley 7/10
England's line-out was close to flawless as Italy's, to use a technical term, 'went to bollocks'. As with the blame when things go wrong, the praise for all this is shared with his locks. Good hands, too.
Dan Cole 7/10
At the (we thought) all-important first scrum he seemed to be driving up against Salvatore Perugini, as opposed to being popped up by him. It worked then but he was pinged for it later. Readers who are forwards, or some of them, will know what all that means.
Tom Palmer 7/10
For the line-out, see the entry for Hartley. Prominent in the loose too, if not quite at the heights he hit in Cardiff.
Louis Deacon 7/10
Took kick-off after kick-off and line-out after line-out and looked pleasingly peeved to be replaced after 45 minutes.
Tom Wood 7/10
Theory: players who do not necessarily look like professional super athletes can often be better than those who do. This bloke is sort of long and ropey and looks very promising indeed.
James Haskell 7/10
Re: above. The über-muscular flanker had one of his best games, breaking and scoring a fine try, but there seems to be something a little, um, 'robotic' in his play. Which probably just means I'm a pointless romantic who yearns for cotton shirts and Mike Teague and actual fights. But there you are.
Nick Easter 7/10
Lovely offload for Tindall's try, out of the back of the hand. In the spirit of the last entry, there's something nice and old-fashioned about the big Quin who, you could almost say, combines Deano's pace with Zinzan's hands.
Simon Shaw on for Deacon.
Mirco Bergamasco seems to have modelled his kicking style on the lock's galloping and gallumphing run.
Matt Banahan on for Cueto, set up two of Ashton's tries.
Steve Thompson on for Hartley to quadruple the average age of the front row.
Danny Care on for Youngs, eager to tap and go. Nice try.
Jonny Wilkinson on for Flood, made an excellent covering tackle on Andrea Masi at the end.
David Wilson on for Cole.
Hendre Fourie on for Wood.
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