There was always a chance of cold comfort for England in the Eternal City yesterday and when it became obvious that the second of their Six Nations matches would be played in the southern European equivalent of an igloo – locals say the winter here is the worst in 50 years – they were in danger of being frozen out completely. To their great credit, Chris Robshaw and company toughed it out in securing a second win on the road and if there was an element of good fortune about the match-turning score, they just about deserved their victory.
Freakishly, the try that mattered fell to Charlie Hodgson (right). Again. From a charged-down kick. Again. A week previously at Murrayfield, the fly-half got hands to a clearance from the Scotland No 10, Dan Parks, and won a very short race to the touchdown. Yesterday, with England nine points adrift, he homed in on Andrea Masi as the full-back shaped up to boot turnover ball from his 22 and claimed another five-pointer after running a few metres further. Owen Farrell's beautifully-struck conversion from the left brought the visitors to within two.
For the remaining half-hour or so, England knew where their destination lay. It was not a comfortable trip: the Azzurri, not least their astonishing captain, Sergio Parisse, continued to ask difficult questions. But Farrell, bloodied and bandaged for much of the match, hit the spot with penalties on 54 and 65 minutes to build on Hodgson's try and for all their huffing and puffing, the Italians were unable to find a way back – not least because the back-rower Ben Morgan and the scrum-half Lee Dickson made significant impacts off the bench.
Just as at Murrayfield, this profoundly inexperienced England outfit started at a good tempo. The most striking contribution came from the Northampton No 8 Phil Dowson, clearly motivated by the chatter earlier in the week of a possible demotion. It was Dowson's fumble in Edinburgh that had forced his colleagues into a long spell on the barricades but here he was ultra-reliable under the high ball and dependable in contact. He might even have scored a try early in the second quarter after following up David Strettle's kick and maximising Farrell's excellent tackle on Tommaso Benvenuti by grounding the loose ball, but the French referee, Jérôme Garces, had blown for an England penalty.
If England felt short-changed, Farrell made them feel better by nail-ing a three-pointer from 40-plus metres. When the 20-year-old Saracens centre banged over a second from the same distance, after Garces took exception to the Italy front row at a set-piece, England were six points to the good and licking their lips. That second penalty was awarded against Lorenzo Cittadini, on the field as a replacement for Martin Castrogiovanni, whose departure with a rib problem stripped an acre of ground from under the feet of the Italian pack.
Yet the Azzurri were never off the pace, with Parisse aided by Alessandro Zanni and Robert Barbieri. Parisse is something: far and away the finest No 8 in the world on his day. His performance was not faultless – more than once, passes out of contact went astray – but when a player is doing pretty much everything, something is bound to go wrong somewhere.
As the contest moved towards its mid-point, Parisse and his men began to establish control that was made tangible in the minutes before the break. First, the wing Giovanbattista Venditti scored a try in the right corner after a toe-poked kick from the impressive Benvenuti had pinballed off Ben Foden and Ben Youngs, neither of whom covered themselves in glory in attempting to snuff out the peril. Then, from the restart, Foden attempted to find Hodgson with a pass out of a tackle by Zanni and found Benvenuti instead. The centre's one-handed gathering of the ball was precise, as was his angled run to the line from the best part of 50 metres.
England were suddenly contemplating a first defeat by these opponents but their resilience was striking, even if their cause was helped by Italian errors on and off the field. Quite why Jacques Brunel, the Azzurri coach, withdrew the slippery scrum-half Edoardo Gori as early as he did will long remain a mystery, as will Parisse's decision to sanction a late shot at the sticks from Tobias Botes, who patentlywas not up to the task from long range – or even from medium range.
A kick to the corner and a line-out drive might have won the game for the Italian, but the captain chose differently. Will England lose a moment's sleep over such misjudgements? The question answers itself.
Italy A Masi; G Venditti (both Aironi), T Benvenuti (Treviso), G Canale (Clermont Auvergne), L McLean; K Burton, E Gori (all Treviso); A Lo Cicero (Racing Métro), L Ghiraldini (Treviso), M Castrogiovanni (Leicester), Q Geldenhuys, M Bortolami (both Aironi), A Zanni (Treviso), S Parisse (Stade Français, capt), R Barbieri (Treviso). Replacements L Cittadini (Treviso) for Castrogiovanni, 33; 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; M Bergamasco (Stade Français) for Barbieri, 75.
England B Foden (Northampton); D Strettle, B Barritt, O Farrell (all 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), P Dowson (Northampton), C Robshaw (Harlequins, capt). 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).
Tries: Venditti, Benvenuti
Pens: Farrell 4
Rome wasn't built in a day: Six key areas for England
Team spirit being a splendid thing, the buckets of it sloshing around this England team are wholly welcome to see. The relentless example is set by Chris Robshaw, the new captain who has done precisely what everyone except him – he's a suitably self-effacing chap, straight out of a Henty novel, just playing up for the School – said he would do: set a sterling, striving, straining, non-stopping example.
The flipside is that all that perspiration is all very well but scoring against Wales, next, will demand something more than a refusal to stop working your collective nuts off. Yesterday there was the odd flash in the backs, as opposed to the full-blown fireworks of North, Roberts, Davies and co. Needs work.
Stuart Lancaster sent on Lee Dickson and Ben Morgan for half an hour and they helped turn things around in what seemed – in a game, or "struggle", that passed a tad slowly – like an instant. In some ways this is a mere extension of the commitment thing, in that the subs (Geoff Parling most obviously) simply worked every bit as hard as the starters. But Lancaster played his cards dead right.
England played the weather pretty well, settling to a muddy, slushy, snowy scrap and eking out four penalties and 12 points in so doing. Rugby being a game for all conditions, with tactics to be adapted as necessary, this was worth a pat on the back. None of them were wearing gloves, either, although the thermal undervest remains a blight on the game. If you're cold, get involved.
Very good again, apart from an odd little spasm of penalties after half-time which helped Italy out to 15-6. Notably, very few of the penalties England did give away were at the breakdown. Watch the forwards on the replay – Lancaster, or maybe Graham Rowntree, has got them springing back from the tackled man, hands aloft in (relatively) cherubic innocence. Seems to work.
Alex Corbisiero had his spine twisted into a double helix at the first scrum, but after that he gave mighty Martin Castrogiovanni nothing at all. On the other side, Dan Cole – a spade-chinned Tudor tough up against Andrea Lo Cicero's mustachioed Barone – made profitable advances. The line-out wobbled a bit again, but the scrum was excellent. Another merit for Mr Rowntree.