England win despite poor performance in Italy

Italy 12 England 17
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The Independent Online

England's RBS 6 Nations title ambitions technically remain alive tonight after Martin Johnson's men battled to victory over Italy.

But few will be convinced England stand any chance at all of lifting the championship title after an unconvincing performance at the Stadio Flaminio.

Mathew Tait's try shortly after half-time illuminated an otherwise turgid clash and ultimately proved the difference.

Jonny Wilkinson had an off-day with the boot but he landed three penalties and a late drop-goal which finally killed off a spirited Italian rally.

The Azzurri had trailed 14-6 but pushed England to the brink with four penalties from Mirco Bergamasco.

Martin Johnson had spent all week warning his team they would have to be patient, that if there is one thing the Italians do well it is to drag their opponents into an arm-wrestle.

That is exactly what happened for long periods and it was the Azzurri who were far more comfortable and had they sealed a first victory over England, Johnson could not have complained.

England spent long periods of the first half embroiled in turgid bouts of tactical kicking that was reflected in the 6-6 half-time score.

However, when England brought their strike runners into the game, they caused the Italian defence problems.

Riki Flutey made an immediate impact on his return to the team at inside centre, sparking a first minute attack which almost led to a try for Armitage.

The England full-back, so critical of his own performance last week, stabbed a grubber kick behind the defence but Italian scrum-half Tito Tebaldi slid in with a last-gasp clearance.

Craig Gower, the Italian fly-half and former Australia rugby league international, orchestrated a positive response and the Azzurri were one pass from scoring after Alessandro Zanni had claimed a cross-kick above Ugo Monye.

England moved upfield and took the lead with a Wilkinson penalty after the Italian lineout, so poor against Ireland, malfunctioned again.

Bergamasco immediately levelled the scores after Nick Easter was penalised for not releasing.

The game was not much of a spectacle but when England did spot an opportunity they brought the likes of Armitage, Monye, Mark Cueto into the game far more than against Wales.

All three combined in a familiar England move, with Cueto bursting on to Armitage's inside ball, but Monye was stopped by an excellent cover-tackle from Gonzalo Garcia.

Wilkinson missed one long-range penalty attempt and then, inexplicably, booted a simple effort wide after another powerful run from Monye had put England on the front foot.

England were conceding too many penalties at the breakdown but they too escaped when Bergamasco's attempt from wide right drifted across the face of the posts.

Tait got himself involved for the first time after another dominant lineout take from Easter, attacking the blindside to link with Armitage and Dylan Hartley.

Italy scrambled well to halt the attack and then proved why they are considered one of the most formidable packs in the world game by shoving the England scrum back and winning the turnover and a penalty.

When Monye was penalised for being in front of the kicker, Gower pushed England back into their 22 and the Italians attacked from clean lineout ball.

Under pressure, England conceded another penalty in the shadow of the posts and Bergamasco made no mistake to put Italy 6-3 ahead.

England were still showing flashes of adventure and when Wilkinson launched a counter-attack from his own 22, Armitage sent Flutey clear on a 50-metre break.

Wilkinson levelled the scores just before the interval and England finally broke the back of the Italian defence early in the second half.

Monye skipped out of a tackle on halfway, shovelled the ball inside to Armitage who found Tait and the Sale centre raced clear to score the opening try.

Wilkinson missed the conversion but extended England's lead to 14-6 with a penalty after Martin Castrogiovanni had been sin-binned for killing the ball.

Despite being a man down, Italy refused to concede defeat and Bergamasco struck back swiftly with another penalty after England were caught offside.

Moody escaped a yellow card for taking McLean out in the air but England were under the cosh and conceded another penalty which allowed Bergamasco to bring Italy within two points.

Calmly, England moved downfield with replacement hooker Steve Thompson creating a platform for Wilkinson to slot the drop-goal which sealed the victory.

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