James Lawton on the Six Nations: Passion of Sergio Parisse brings Stuart Lancaster's England side down to earth

Italy came hauntingly close to delivering more than a scare. They pushed England to the point of destruction

There were too many times when the power and the composure of the England renaissance – and the assumption that the Triple Crown, Grand Slam and full-blown redemption await formal collection at the Millennium Stadium next Saturday – not only flickered but seemed to have burnt away.

A team that has been growing so impressively for a year or so was scaled down for a variety of reasons but mostly they seemed to be operating in the shadow of great players.

One of them was the restored Sam Warburton of Wales, who at Murrayfield 24 hours earlier had not only looked as though he had picked up his bed to walk but a rather wider array of household furniture with which to batter England.

The menace of Warburton and Wales' iron-clad defence might just have been a fatal distraction as Italy's brilliant second half brought white-knuckled tension to Twickenham. There was also that other image of the extraordinary commitment required of the great champion players so vivid in Dublin when Brian O'Driscoll, swathed in bandages, returned to the field to help resist a France who had apparently remembered how you play seriously competitive rugby.

Could this new England strike such levels of authority and character so close to the climax of their remarkable domination of the Six Nations tournament and some more than fleeting evidence their ransacking of world champions New Zealand last autumn might just be an earnest promise of things to come?

No, they could never make that a serious possibility, a fact they conceded with the most eloquent body language of relief when Irish referee George Clancy – who had earlier grievously wounded the Italians when he wrongly called a knock-on when they bore down on the England line – signalled an English victory by just seven points.

England coach Stuart Lancaster can only hope that he is able in the next few days to recreate the sense of a team moving forward with quite relentless application. Here, they were anything but that. In the first half they ran guilelessly at an apparently vulnerable Italy but, with Toby Flood slotting over the penalties achieved by England's forward dominance, there was a case to say that this might be no more than a timely reminder that a much sharper and more fluent game had to be taken to Cardiff.

This, though, was before another great player intruded into the consciousness of the putative Six Nations champions.

Inspired by the ageless brilliance of Sergio Parisse, Italy came hauntingly close to delivering something far more serious than a bracing scare. They came very close to destroying England's vision of a season filled with great promise for the future and, at the very least, a significant impact on the 2015 World Cup. They pushed England to the point of destruction and their own first victory in a place which had previously promised only death by the sustained infliction of superior power.

Parisse delivered a thrilling lesson in imaginative leadership. If the English pack opened with some impressive power, the Italian No 8 never yielded for a moment the idea that he might work some miraculous level of resistance and, when his back division began to deliver moments of penetration and flair quite beyond their English counterparts in the second, the odds against such a possibility shortened quite dramatically.

Full-back Andrea Masi ran with both power and invention, wing Giovanbattista Vendetti stretched the seams of English defence each time he possessed the ball, and this was after the heavy blow delivered by Clancy when he ignored the advice of his consulted touch judge Nigel Owens and called the knock-on after Parisse had released the hard-driving flanker Alessandro Zanni.

For a considerable while, though, England looked as if they might be beyond the help of such acts of charity.

It was just as well that Lancaster turned to Ben Youngs when Danny Care, a lively enough performer in England's period of ascendancy, seemed to be particularly unhinged by the new weight and passion of Italy. Care's skied kick allowed the Italians to set up a position of some menace and it was beautifully exploited by Italy's deceptively fragile outside-half Luciano Orquera. The Argentine-Italian floated a perfect kick into the path of the Australian-Italian Tom McLean for the only try, but if the origins of an achievement which England found quite impossible could hardly have had wider origins, it certainly represented some of the natural creativity of its adopted land.

When McLean, who also had an especially impressive game, went in the embattled Chris Ashton was nowhere to be seen. It was not the only example of a player's decline in assurance from his days of flamboyant swagger but then on this occasion he was hardly conspicuous in his apparent lack of self-belief. England passed the ball along the line at some speed but it was a velocity without either a change of direction or a touch of wit.

This was, naturally enough, a source of great encouragement for at least one Welshman. Jonathan Davies was quick to point out that when his compatriots had come under pressure at Murrayfield they had stuck it "to the guts" of Scotland. They had gone at the heart of their defence, which may not have brought a spectacular yield in points but, according to the great man, it was maybe an encouraging hint that they will be in the right frame of mind at the end of this week.

England, certainly, have to show some increased evidence of a killer touch of their own if they want to avoid the most crushing anticlimax. On a weekend seized by the force of Warburton, England were in quite desperate need of more conviction.

Lancaster has maybe enough reason to believe that he can still conjure a sufficient amount. But if bad days happen from time to time, the trick is to grow strong at those places which come under most pressure. For the new England that requirement was never more pressing than in the last few minutes yesterday. They survived, it is true, but by the barest margin. The Welsh were surely emboldened, by the old fire of Sam Warburton and his ability to exploit a weakness which had previously been so well concealed.

 



England v Italy in numbers

4: Line breaks by Italy yesterday, compared to one by England

19: England have beaten Italy in every one of their 19 meetings

14: Penalties given away by Italy yesterday, making it 43 for this Six Nations campaign in total

BUY RUGBY WORLD CUP TICKETS

News
election 2015The 10 best quotes of the campaign
News
A caravan being used as a polling station in Ford near Salisbury, during the 2010 election
election 2015The Independent's guide to get you through polling day
News
people
Voices
David Blunkett joins the Labour candidate for Redcar Anna Turley on a campaigning visit last month
voicesWhat I learnt from my years in government, by the former Home Secretary David Blunkett
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

Typefaces still matter in the digital age

A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

Crisp sales are in decline

As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

Ronald McDonald the muse

A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'