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

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
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

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

Dame Harriet Walter interview

The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links