England woefully short of the wow factor
Italy 15 England 19: Dickson and Morgan best of the bunch but spirit rather than flair secures win in Rome
Just before kick-off in the Eternal City's modern version of the Colosseum of old – home to two major football teams, whose supporters have traditionally been split by the capital's socio-political divide – a band of Azzurri followers let off a flare high in the Curva Nord section of a stadium transformed overnight into a winter wonderland. If only they had found a way of letting off some flair instead, temperatures might have risen sufficiently to warm the spirit. Sadly, there was precious little in the way of wit or imagination to tempt Roma diehards or Lazio "ultras" into a change of sporting allegiance.
There was a big chance for the union game here on Saturday: an opportunity to showcase the best of itself to the wider Roman public after the move across the Tiber from Stadio Flaminio, very much the baby brother when it comes to sporting venues in these parts. The chance went begging. There were three tries, one more than at Murrayfield a week previously, but, each in its own way, they were the tries from next door rather than the tries from the ends of the earth. A triple ricochet, an interception and a chargedown? Not much poetry there. One per cent Virgil, 99 per cent Pam Ayres.
The Azzurri themselves had a bigger opportunity still, and they blew it. Sergio Parisse, the finest No 8 in world rugby, knew this to be true and said as much afterwards. "England were not strong today," he said, bitterly disappointed. "This should have been our moment to beat them."
Parisse had been playing on one leg after a dodgy second-half challenge from Tom Palmer, immediately followed by an obstructive nudge from Tom Croft that felled him a second time, but he still performed like a matchwinner. Unfortunately for him, he had too many natural-born losers at his side.
So it was that England, giving everything of themselves and more under the caretaker coaching team headed up by Stuart Lancaster, secured a second successive away victory in the Six Nations – something Martin Johnson, the previous manager, failed to achieve over three tournaments. Lancaster has tapped into something valuable, a seam rich in one of the elusive qualities at the heart of any winning side: namely, the sense of togetherness so conspicuous by its absence during the World Cup in New Zealand last autumn.
This was best articulated by Lee Dickson, the Northampton scrum-half, who won his second cap off the bench by replacing Ben Youngs, who was not so much short of form as bereft of it. "When we went in at half-time, after conceding two soft tries right before the break, there was this complete sense of calm," he said. "I looked around and thought: 'We're absolutely together. The people in this room will do anything for each other.' And that's how it turned out. It gave me a real buzz, playing half an hour rather than just a few minutes: it felt like my first cap. But the thing that gives you the biggest buzz is the spirit in the squad. Players, coaches, back-room staff... we all want it, badly."
Dickson did precisely as he was meant to do after taking the field shortly after Charlie Hodgson's chargedown score, his second such contribution in seven days, had reduced England's deficit to two points: in short, he made a difference. By modern standards, he is what used to be known as a "little squirt": these days, a 13st half-back is the rugby equivalent of the 7st weakling who has sand kicked in his face. Only Hodgson, who could eat an entire herd of horses and still weigh 12st 13lb, is lighter – and, unlike a No 9, he has an excuse for not being in the thick of it. Dickson, however, has a touch of the warrior's soul about him, and the energy he injected was crucial.
There was also something to be said for Ben Morgan, another who started proceedings in a seated position – no fun in those temperatures, to be sure. Green as grass as a top-level No 8 (he is inexperienced even in professional club terms), he stampeded around the snow-dusted terrain like some rugby-playing Bigfoot, scattering defenders to all parts with open-field runs that seemed to gather pace the longer they continued. Both Dickson and Morgan must be serious contenders for a starting place when Lancaster's side play their first match on friendly soil, against Wales in 12 days' time.
That game has something of the acid test about it, for it is inconceivable that England will prevail against such dangerous opponents without an attacking game worthy of the name. Here, they scrummaged strongly – Alex Corbisiero dealt competently with the threatening Martin Castrogiovanni after an uncomfortable start and was more than a match for Lorenzo Cittadini following Castro's withdrawal with a rib injury – and, with the hooker Dylan Hartley in do-or-die mood, they fought the good fight at every last ruck and maul. But with their line-out launch pad malfunctioning, there was little to write home about in the "wow" department. Actually, there was less than little. Nothing? That sounds about right.
Even if England do not donate tries to the needy in the way they did on Saturday – Ben Foden's slip-pass to Tommaso Benvenuti at the very end of the first half was only marginally less generous than the full-back's "yours, mine, sod it" routine with Youngs that presented Giovanbattista Venditti with his first international score – they will surely concede at least one to the Welsh. This suggests they will require a response, and as the chances of Hodgson claiming a third chargedown in as many weeks are as remote as the planet Neptune, a properly orchestrated passing movement here and there might not go amiss.
What chances England had were either created for them by their opponents or resulted from some rumbustious midfield interjections from Owen Farrell, who again kicked quite beautifully, and Brad Barritt, who showed strongly at times, albeit against an Azzurri midfield with all the creative brio of a microwaved lasagne. Parisse, who increasingly looks like a rugby genius, and the scrum-half Edoardo Gori were the only players on view who thought out of the box, and Gori was withdrawn by his coaching team with a quarter of the contest remaining. More fool them.
Lancaster knows England are missing approximately half a game at present: they are all yin and no yang. Given the state they were in after the World Cup, this is acceptable – but only for so long. Once the game with Wales is behind them, they must travel to Paris before hosting Ireland at Twickenham on the last day of the tournament. Easy games there are none, but some are harder than others and the three remaining fixtures fall squarely into that category. A team can occasionally get away with defending like lions and attacking like Christians: if you can't do that in Rome, of all places, where the hell can you do it? But more often than not, nothing comes of nothing. England will need something more if they are to keep winning.
Italy: Tries Venditti, Benvenuti; Conversion Burton; Penalty Burton. England Try: Hodgson; Conversion Farrell; Penalties Farrell 4.
Italy: A Masi (Aironi); G Venditti (Aironi), T Benvenuti (Treviso), G Canale (Clermont Auvergne), L McLean (Treviso); K Burton (Treviso), E Gori (Treviso); A Lo Cicero (Racing Metro), L Ghiraldini (Treviso), M Castrogiovanni (Leicester), Q Geldenhuys (Aironi), M Bortolami (Aironi), A Zanni (Treviso), R Barbieri (Treviso), S Parisse (Stade Français, capt). Replacements: L Cittadini (Treviso) for Castrogiovanni, 33; T Botes (Treviso) for Burton, 46; F Semenzato (Treviso) for Gori, 57; A Pavanello (Treviso) for Geldenhuys, 57; T D'Apice (Aironi) for Ghiraldini , 58; L Morisi (Crociati) for Canale, 63; Mauro Bergamasco (Stade Français) for Barbieri, 75.
England: B Foden (Northampton); D Strettle (Saracens), B Barritt (Saracens), O Farrell (Saracens), C Ashton (Northampton); C Hodgson (Saracens), B Youngs (Leicester); A Corbisiero (London Irish), D Hartley (Northampton), D Cole (Leicester), M Botha (Saracens), T Palmer (Stade Français), T Croft (Leicester), C Robshaw (Harlequins, capt), P Dowson (Northampton). Replacements: L Dickson (Northampton) for Youngs 50; B Morgan (Scarlets) for Dowson, 50; G Parling (Leicester) for Palmer, 58; R Webber (Wasps) for Hartley, 74; M Stevens (Saracens) for Cole, 74; J Turner-Hall (Harlequins) for Hodgson, 77.
Referee J Garces (France).
Italy Points England
2 Tries 1
1/2 Conversions 1/1
1/3 Penalties 4/4
0/1 Drop goals 0/0 Phases of play5/0 Scrums won/lost 3/2
5/2 Line-outs won/lost 14/3
10 Pens conceded 9
2 Mauls won 6
15 Ruck and drive 11
67 Ruck and pass 64
118 Passes completed 147
3 Line breaks 1
34 Possession kicked 31
9 Kicks to touch 3
85/4 Tackles made/missed 85/5
2 Offloads in tackle 5
15 Total errors made 9
84 In open play 81
16 In opponent's 22 10
19 At set pieces 27
6 Turnovers won 4
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