England's medium-term preparations for the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand took a sideways step in the Eternal City yesterday.
They stand alongside France at the top of the Six Nations table after a second straight victory, but they needed a late three points from the drop-goal specialist Jonny Wilkinson to make it 17-12 and hold off a one-dimensional Italy team, whose coach, Nick Mallett, damned the visitors with faint praise during the after-match analysis.
"They probably had more try- scoring chances than we managed to create,'' admitted the South African, "but if we had been the ones with that opportunity to drop a winning goal, I'd like to think our own Craig Gower would have made an equally good job of it. I think it's an encouraging sign that my players are deeply disappointed at not getting a result here. There have been times in the past when they would have been happy at pushing England so close, but the dressing room is not happy today. There is a genuine feeling of frustration that we didn't win the game.''
It was not the first time the Azzurri, now in their 11th season of Six Nations competition, had threatened to record a first victory over England: in 1998, before they joined the tournament, they pushed Clive Woodward's side hard in a World Cup qualifying match in Huddersfield, while in this fixture two years ago they lost by only four points to a team coached by Brian Ashton. But this was probably the least comfortable the former world champions have felt against Italy, even though their winning margin was a point more. The contest, enlivened only by a single try from the centre Mathew Tait, had moved into injury time when Wilkinson made his decisive intervention.
"We just didn't have the ball for long enough periods of time, especially after the interval," said Martin Johnson, the England manager, as he sought to explain his side's pop-gun performance – a serious let-down after the three-try victory over Wales in the opening round of matches. "We lost five of our own line-outs in the second half – one crooked throw, two pinched, two dropped on delivery – and that's a lot of set-piece possession to fritter away. Chances are created from first phase, and that area of our game didn't go as we'd have wished.
"Also, we were put under a lot of pressure at the breakdown. It was not until the second half that one of the Italians [the prop Martin Castrogiovanni] was shown a yellow card and I thought it might have come earlier because there were people getting on the wrong side of the rucks from the start.
"But even so, the Italians were tough to control at the tackle area. Add to that our poor chasing of kicks and you begin to understand why things unfolded as they did."
Johnson has 12 days to iron out the creases in England's game ahead of the important meeting with Ireland, the defending champions, at Twickenham. Three of his senior players – the flanker Lewis Moody, the lock Simon Shaw and the outside-half Wilkinson – needed prolonged treatment during yesterday's match but there were no expressions of concern from the medical team as they made their initial health-and-fitness checks last night.
The more alarming aspect of Wilkinson's performance was his unusually poor return on the goal-kicking front. He missed three kicks, all of them comfortable for a marksman of his standard and two of them the rugby equivalents of falling off a log.Reuse content