Six Nations 2014 - Italy 11 England 52: Stuart Lancas ter finds victory can feel like defeat, but future’s bright

 

Victory is not always everything it’s cracked up to be. An hour or so after watching his side put seven tries and a half-century of points past Italy in a city where some of the world’s leading sides have struggled horribly in recent seasons, Stuart Lancaster found himself under fire over his substitution policy – the equivalent, in his eyes, of Jack Nowell being criticised for crossing the Azzurri line with his socks round his ankles. The coach seemed bemused, exasperated and unusually prickly, all at the same time.

A short while afterwards, in his black-tie penguin suit at the official banquet, he was to be found in front of a television screen, watching Ireland pinch the Six Nations title from under English noses – an experience he would later describe as “not much fun”. Listening to him, the mind drifted back to Australia last summer, when the Lions boss Warren Gatland found his series triumph over the Wallabies tainted by the furore over the dropping of Brian O’Driscoll. In big-time rugby, you can be made to feel like a loser even when you win.

Lancaster will put these negatives behind him soon enough: but for the fact that Ireland played the two weakest teams in the tournament, Italy and Scotland, at home, and that England suffered a 20-minute meltdown in Paris on the opening day, the trophy would be in red-rose hands. But with the World Cup 18 months away, barely a week will go by without a sharp intensification of scrutiny. Hence the coach’s acknowledgement that a “thicker skin” might come in handy.

“Everyone is entitled to their opinion,” he said, when pressed on the criticism of his tactics off the bench: an assault led by his World Cup-winning predecessor, Sir Clive Woodward. Not that Lancaster considers all opinions to be worth the time and effort spent in expressing them. In his view, England ended up with only a 52-11 win to their name rather than one that would have forced Ireland to beat France by a significant margin, because the Azzurri flatly refused to surrender in the final quarter.

 

In arguing that his replacements – particularly the Leicester centre Manu Tuilagi, the Bath lock Dave Attwood and the young outside-half George Ford – gave added value to the England performance, the coach was on solid ground. The eagerly anticipated first glimpse of Tuilagi operating on the wing did not materialise; instead he came on at outside centre for Luther Burrell, who seemed mightily hacked off. But Tuilagi made quite an impact against a tiring Italian side, touching down in characteristically destructive fashion and winning the turnover that resulted in Chris Robshaw’s wrap-up try, deep in added time. Along with Burrell and the increasingly impressive Billy Twelvetrees, he will be a part of England’s midfield equation at next year’s global gathering.

Ford also emerged heavily in credit, although it remains to be seen whether the 20-year-old playmaker will be trusted to run the show against the All Blacks this summer. If Saracens fail to reach the Premiership final, the outstanding Owen Farrell will surely be the man squaring up to the world champions in Auckland on 7 June. Even if Farrell is forced to arrive late on tour it is not absolutely certain that Ford will fill the vacancy, but on this evidence he should at least mount a solid case.

Farrell has turned into a rare piece of work. With Twelvetrees, a clever game-manager equipped with the full range of midfield skills, taking on some of the organisational responsibilities, the freed-up No 10 is performing almost as well in attack as he is in defence – which is saying something. Even without his contribution from the kicking tee, he would be worth his weight in whatever currency you care to name. With it, he is close to indispensable.

Which is why the thought of losing him to the sin bin in an important game is far from pleasant. Towards the end of Saturday’s game, Farrell’s natural aggression spun out of control. In grabbing the Azzurri scrum-half Edoardo Gori round the neck and smashing him into the ground, for no apparent reason, he ran the risk of being sent packing. Full-back Mike Brown, similarly fiery and every bit as productive over the course of this tournament, also lost his rag, equally unnecessarily, first with Leonardo Sarto and then with Luke McLean.

“When every point matters – when you’re trying to score 60 or 70 and you can’t get the speed of possession you want because the Italians have decided to stop all ball emerging from the breakdown – things can be pretty frustrating,” said Lancaster. “But in international rugby, those frustrations have to be channelled correctly.” In other words, the toys must remain in the pram.

For all that, Lancaster’s players are generally on the same page, which is a different thing from seeing the whole of Italian rugby on the same page – page 39, to be exact. In the weekend edition of the Corriere dello Sport there was mass coverage of Lazio, one of the city’s major football teams, and reams of writing on Roma, their great local rivals. All reference to the Azzurri’s final Six Nations match of the campaign was hidden away at the back of the paper, and while there were 80,000 supporters in Stadio Olimpico, it was not obvious that more than 10 per cent of them would have recognised an Italian player in a phone booth, assuming he wasn’t Sergio Parisse.

The small rugby community here is not quite terminally depressed, despite enduring another season of the wooden spoon variety. The cognoscenti believe Jacques Brunel is doing a decent job as coach and they are encouraged by the attacking zip shown by a couple of newcomers, Sarto on the wing and Michele Campagnaro in midfield. But they fear that the uncertainty over the future of the Heineken Cup and Pro 12 tournaments will drive a majority of the Test team abroad and worry that Treviso, easily the most successful Italian team of the professional era, will be stripped bare by offers of foreign contracts.

Whatever problems Lancaster feels he has, they pale into insignificance by comparison. Indeed, his issues are ones of feast, not of famine.

“We’ve made real progress over the course of this tournament and with some top people on their way back – Marland Yarde and Ben Foden are fit again, Geoff Parling will be playing soon – we can travel to New Zealand this summer in reasonably confident mood and give it a real go,” he said. “It’s a challenging place to tour, clearly, but it’s a challenge we want to take on.”

It is quite a while since an England coach said that and meant it. The last to do so was that Woodward chap, back in 2003… and we all know what happened that year.

Italy: Try Sarto; Penalties Orquera 2. England Tries Brown 2, Farrell, Nowell, Vunipola, Tuilagi, Robshaw; Conversions Farrell 7; Penalty Farrell.

Italy: L McLean (Treviso); A Esposito (Treviso), M Campagnaro (Treviso), G Garcia (Zebre), L Sarto (Zebre); L Orquera (Zebre),  T Tebaldi (Ospreys); M Aguero (Zebre),  L Ghiraldini (Treviso), L Cittadini (Treviso),  Q Geldenhuys (Zebre), M Bortolami (Zebre), J Furno (Biarritz), R Barbieri (Treviso),  S Parisse (Stade Français, capt). Replacements: T Allan (Perpignan) for Orquera, 42; A De Marchi (Treviso) for Aguero, 46; M Rizzo (Treviso) for Cittadini, 46; P Derbyshire (Treviso) for Furno, 55;  G F Biagi (Zebre) for Derbyshire, 61; E Gori (Treviso) for Tebaldi, 65; Cittadini for Rizzo, 70; A Masi (Wasps) for Garcia, 72.

England: M Brown (Harlequins); J Nowell (Exeter), L Burrell (Northampton), W Twelvetrees (Gloucester), J May (Gloucester);  O Farrell (Saracens), D Care (Harlequins);  M Vunipola (Saracens), D Hartley (Northampton), D Wilson (Bath), J Launchbury (Wasps), C Lawes (Northampton), T Wood (Northampton), C Robshaw (Harlequins, capt), B Morgan (Gloucester). Replacements: M Tuilagi (Leicester) for Burrell, 53; T Youngs (Leicester) for Hartley, 53; L Dickson (Northampton) for Care, 65; T Johnson (Exeter) for Wood, 65;  G Ford (Bath) for Twelvetrees, 70; H Thomas (Sale) for Wilson, 70; D Attwood (Bath) for Launchbury, 70; M Mullan (Wasps) for Vunipola, 75.

Referee P Gaüzère (France).

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