Brian Smith: Don't assume England will just roll over Italy – against Edoardo Gori and Sergio Parisse they must be patient

ANALYSIS: A look ahead to the game at Twickenham

This is not what Warren Gatland will want to hear after his bad night out in Cardiff last week, but the more time you spend putting England’s victory at the Millennium Stadium in its proper context, the more comprehensive it looks.

James Haskell did everything but score a try in the second half; ditto Dave Attwood. When you consider that Wales were given a flying 10-point start and might easily have shipped 30 once the visitors hit their straps, the fact that the contest stayed tight for as long as it did bordered on the perverse.

Warren has a problem: he’s been head coach of Wales for a long time now, to the extent that he might struggle to say something new to players who have come to know him as well as he knows himself. The Gatland model, in English club rugby with Wasps as well as at Test level, has become such a familiar one, and a number of knowledgeable rugby people are now beginning to wonder what happens when you’re no longer bigger, stronger and faster than the opposition. As Wales didn’t look any of those things against England – or, indeed, at Twickenham last season – is it possible that they’ve shot their bolt just a few months shy of a World Cup?

There were things that surprised me. I couldn’t understand why Gethin Jenkins, their loose-head prop, was not substituted at the interval, because it was obvious by then that the referee, Jérôme Garcès, had made up his mind about who was doing what to whom at the scrum. Wales also got it wrong on the Ben Youngs front. The England scrum-half created carnage with his sniping around the edges, yet the penny failed to drop with those in charge until he’d run riot.

I spent enough time with Ben during my days in the England set-up to know how damaging he can be with a little momentum in his game, so the trick is to man-mark him. Wales defended with their half-back positioned on the blind side of the rucks and mauls, and played straight into his hands. If I was coaching Italy ahead of Saturday afternoon’s match at Twickenham, this would be the message to Edoardo Gori: “Stand directly behind the breakdown rather than commit yourself and go wherever Youngs goes. If you fail to shut him down – if he gets over that gain line just once – I’ll give you the hook and let someone else have a shot at him.”

Talking of Gori, here’s an Italian who can play a bit. Those who are mystified as to why he has not been picked up by a major club in the Premiership have to remember that the scrum-half position is all about communication and that No 9s with poor or hesitant English might need time to settle. There’s also the problem of paying top dollar for an active international who’ll be missing for half the season. But make no mistake, Gori is comfortably gifted enough to make an impact here if a club ever decides to take a punt on him.

 

Not that he would claim to be as fine as rugby player as his captain, Sergio Parisse. It takes some doing to build a reputation as a modern great in a side that rarely wins, but this bloke is a world-class No 8 a hundred times over – a forward who would find a place in any team, including New Zealand. If he’d been a part of that All Black machine over the last decade, we’d be talking of him as one of the standout performers in the history of the sport. What’s more, we might never have heard of Kieran Read!

This is an awkward game for England, because they’re in “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” territory. I don’t know what percentage of the Twickenham crowd will be genuine rugby followers and how many will be there for the prawn sandwiches, to borrow a phrase from Roy Keane, but there is bound to be a proportion who assume Stuart Lancaster’s team will be 30 points up by half-time and will moan like hell if it doesn’t happen. Yet Italy will take some breaking down and, while I can’t see England failing to find a way eventually, there could be long periods of frustration.

I thought England were terrific in Wales: their set piece, their carrying, the odd flash of ingenuity outside the scrum – all in all, it was a deeply satisfying performance. But if I had to shine a light on one area in need of attention, it would concern the outside-half George Ford. Don’t get me wrong: he’s one heck of a player when it comes to managing a game. But Wales got to him a couple of times, through Jamie Roberts and Mike Phillips, and it emphasised the need to box a little more cleverly in defence.

Ford is on the small side, no two ways about it, and he’s hardly an Owen Farrell in the tackle: when Toby Faletau created that first-half try for Rhys Webb, the Bath man went super-low, hit the No 8 as hard as he could ... and made no discernible impact. I’d hide him in the five-metre channel on opposition ball, as a means of protecting him. He’s a prize asset for England, so why expose him to someone the size of Roberts?

Brian Smith is a former England attack coach

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