England set out to do two things amid the sun-kissed splendour of a Roman spring yesterday: to break the Italian spirit, and then break the bank with an avalanche of second-half points that would maximise their chances of winning a first Six Nations title since 2011.
They went close to achieving both goals, but try as they might, they could not put quite enough scoreboard distance between themselves and the Azzurri to alter the delicate balance at the top of the championship table.
At one stage in a one-sided second half, it looked as though Chris Robshaw’s side would sail past the 60-point mark and give Ireland, the marginal favourites for the European crown, a serious dose of the heebie-jeebies going into their meeting with France in Paris. But after opening up a 45-6 lead early in the final quarter, they conceded a soft try to the Italian wing Leonardo Sarto, who intercepted Joe Launchbury’s pass and slipped away down the left for a touchdown no one had seen coming – least of all Launchbury, who, brimming with confidence, was looking to free the full-back Mike Brown on a long run out of defence.
That one misjudgement ensured that England would not set Ireland a target any greater than a single-point victory over Les Bleus. Not that it affected their attacking intent. With the game in overtime, Manu Tuilagi stuck his boot into an Italian ruck to force a turnover, and George Ford’s lovely little show-and-go act in open field presented Robshaw with the try that took the visitors past the half-century mark. It was a smart move by the young outside-half from Bath. If you’re looking to make a name for yourself, there are worse ways than making your captain look good.
England were less accurate in their execution than they had been against Wales six days previously, but with the intensity of the contest way short of that generated during the confrontation with the reigning champions, it did not much matter. Once Robshaw and company settled after a rough 10 minutes from the kick-off – Robert Barbieri’s heavy tackle on Brown in the opening exchanges set the early tone and Italy fully deserved their short-lived lead, courtesy of Lucia Orquera’s penalty – they brought their energy and tempo to bear on proceedings. The Azzurri had no answer to Courtney Lawes at the line-out and never looked like keeping the high-performing half-backs, Danny Care and Owen Farrell, under lock and key.
Farrell, in magisterial form with the boot, squared the argument soon enough with a penalty of his own and when the centres, Billy Twelvetrees and Luther Burrell, worked their way behind Azzurri lines with some excellent approach work – Burrell’s passing out of contact was particularly sweet – Brown brushed off the weakest of tackles from the otherwise eye-catching Michele Campagnaro to race clear for the opening try. The game was 12 minutes old … and the writing was on the wall, in block capitals.
Orquera, perhaps inspired by Farrell’s marksmanship over the course of this tournament, pegged England back at the start of the second quarter with a monster penalty from a position tight to the right touchline, but despite the best efforts of the ever-willing Gonzalo Garcia in midfield, the Azzurri defensive line was being stretched to snapping point. Sure enough, the outcome was decided by two tries in quick succession: the first from Farrell, who took advantage of a clever delayed delivery from Care, and the second from the irrepressible Brown, who fastened on to a pass from his outside-half and set sail on an in-out scoring run that left both Sarto and Angelo Esposito clutching nothing more substantial than handfuls of warm air.
Jacques Brunel, the wise old coach from the Catalan corner of France who has improved Azzurri fortunes since succeeding Nick Mallett after the last World Cup, then went into uncharacteristic meltdown by withdrawing both starting props, who had enjoyed considerable success at the set-piece, in favour of Alberto De Marchi and Michele Rizzo, who promptly scrummaged the English front-rowers back into the game. Jack Nowell, the Exeter wing, was the immediate beneficiary of this sudden outbreak of close-quarter solidity, scoring his first international try from a well-worked training ground move.
And still the scores came, Twelvetrees using his innate intelligence in broken field to send Mako Vunipola rumbling over and Tuilagi, introduced as a centre rather than a wing despite a deluge of speculation that he might be tried in one of the wide positions, giving it the “full metal jacket” treatment in touching down to the left of the sticks.
There was nothing much that Italy could do about it: not even Sergio Parisse, a live contender for the title of the world’s best No 8 on an annual basis, looked his usual million dollars, thanks to the blue-shirted poverty around him. It was not quite all doom and gloom for the home side – if they hold their nerve and continue to give the likes of Campagnaro and Sarto opportunities, preferably outside a half-back partnership of Edoardo Gori and Tommaso Allan rather than the men who started yesterday – they could yet stem their precipitous fall down the world rankings. But on this evidence, they have lost a massive amount of ground on England in the space of a year.
Or just maybe, it is England who have gained the ground. There were some flaws in the fine detail yesterday, but the big picture stuff was very impressive indeed.
Italy 11 England 52 - player ratings
Italy 11 England 52 - player ratings
1/8 Full Back
Mike Brown - tetchy and aggressive but two tries made up for his habit of annoying the Italy players and a shoe in for Player of the Tournament 9
Jack Nowell - a first try for the wing and a busy afternoon which proved that he can get even better if he goes looking for more ball in the traffic 7 Johnny May - still no try and continues to look inside for room rather than attacking he outside. Still to be convinced he is the right man for the wing 7
Luther Burrell - couple of errors but more evidence that he is capable of punching holes in any defence. He needs to get his passing up to speed 7 Billy Twelvtrees - accomplished all round game with clever passing and link work and he is getting better with every game. Deserves a long run 8
4/8 Half Backs
Owen Farrell - a try and another faultless day with the boot. Silly high tackle was a shame but he is blossoming in the current set up and key man 8 Danny Care - gave the game the tempo it needed and always looking to get his backs into the game. Is the No1 scrum half and deserves that rating 8
5/8 Front Row
Mako Vunipola - not a destructive force in the tight but made good decisions in the loose where his game is above average. Needs to work on scurms 7 Dylan Hartley - not his best game in the loose however his peerless line out throwing is a critical part of the England game and he is the top operator 7 David Wilson - did all that was asked of him in the scrums while putting himself about in the loose to good effect. Not as dynamic as we hoped in the heat 7
6/8 Second Row
Joe Launchbury - another performance to build on a great series in the championship and is getting better with every game. One of the best in the Six Nations 7 Courtney Lawes - was a big presence in the tight and loose and showed great fitness levels to last the pace and is now the centre piece of good pack 8
7/8 Back Row
Tom Wood - tireless worker in the dark areas of the contact zone and he is also a very useful line out option to ensure England quality ball 7 Chris Robshaw - try to round off another excellent campaign. Works well with the referees and demands high standards from everyone around him 8 Ben Morgan - has proved to be a very good ball carrying No8 with an eye for the gap and the off load. Putting pressure on Billy Vunipola for the jersey 8
Tom Youngs - got his line out working which is key 7 Matt Mullan - helped the scrum work well late on 7 Henry Thomas - did his stuff in the tight and loose 7 Dave Attwood - great charge up field from the big man 8 Tom Johnson - did his usual grafting best 7 Lee Dickson - kept he game going well 7 George Ford - lovely break shows promise 7 Manu Tuilagi - a try to welcome him back 8
Italy: L McLean; A Esposito, M Campagnaro, G Garcia (A Masi, 72), L Sarto; L Orquera (T Allan, 42), T Tebaldi (E Gori, 65); M Aguero (De Marchi, 46), L Ghiraldini, L Cittadini (M Rizzo, 46-70), Q Geldenhuys, M Bortolami, J Furno (P Derbyshire, 55; G F Biagi, 61), R Barbieri, S Parisse (capt).
England: M Brown; J Nowell, L Burrell (M Tuilagi, 53), W Twelvetrees (G Ford, 70), J May; O Farrell, D Care (L Dickson, 65); M Vunipola (M Mullen, 75), D Hartley (T Youngs, 53), D Wilson (H Thomas, 70), J Launchbury (D Attwood, 70), C Lawes, T Wood (T Johnson, 65), C Robshaw (capt), B Morgan. .
Referee: P Gaüzère (France).