There are occasions when an early-morning crammers' course in classical trigonometry might be considered a sexier prospect than an England team trying to play rugby against the brave but terminally limited Italians, and this was very definitely one of them. On Valentine's Day, too. If Martin Johnson's side sent the paying public dashing for the bedroom in their thousands yesterday, it was not so they could continue their thrill-seeking amid the romantic ruins of Rome. By the end of the game, people were fast asleep all over the capital.
The Azzurri kicked away 61 per cent of their possession, but then, they were expected to do precisely that. Why? Because they are not much good at doing anything else. For their part, England banged 54 percent of their hard-won ball down the field, often to no purpose detectable by the human brain. If there was a tactical plan at work, it was not immediately apparent to the vast majority of the 33,000 crowd. It was not welcome, either. At the final whistle, the visitors were booed from the field.
Johnson, the England manager, was his usual unapologetic self afterwards. "People have lost here: Scotland have lost, Wales have lost," he said. "I'd rather win than lose." But he knew England might easily have finished second, and had they done so the manner of defeat would have caused an almighty stink in the corridors and committee rooms of Twickenham. A mere two points ahead in injury-time and vulnerable to any late drop-goal shot from the Italians, they needed a "wrong-footed" drop of their own – from Jonny Wilkinson, inevitably – to secure the victory.
This was hardly uncharted territory for the outside-half; he had, after all, successfully performed this most challenging of marksmanship tasks under infinitely more pressurised circumstances on World Cup final night in Sydney in 2003. But hitting the spot this time around did not reinforce his status as one of the nation's sporting heroes, for his all-round game in the previous 80-odd minutes had been deeply flawed.
While he put width on the ball at times, he was, in the final analysis, every bit as conservative in his playmaking as he had been against Wales eight days previously. So far, so predictable. Unfortunately, his most obvious strength also turned into a weakness – temporarily, one must assume, but worryingly all the same. Perhaps the finest goal-kicker to put boot to ball in the whole history of the union code, Wilkinson under-clubbed a straightforward kick from 45 metres – since when has Saint Jonny ever been short with a head-on penalty? – and then shanked two shots at the sticks from inside the Azzurri 22. As Nick Mallett, the Italy coach, admitted: "It's not the sort of thing you see often."
Struggling for direction from the No 10 position, England allowed themselves to be drawn into the kind of mess – part dog-fight at the tackle area, part aerial ping-pong – they had spent the entire build-up talking about avoiding. Alessandro Zanni, the home No 8, was one of the chief beneficiaries, as was the captain Leonardo Ghiraldini. The two of them caused the favourites all manner of grief on the floor, while Marco Bortolami rediscovered the best of himself in raiding the English line-out. A former Azzurri captain fallen on hard times, the Gloucester lock had been so far out of form for so long that good judges were queuing up to dismiss him as nothing more than a shell of the world-class tight forward he once was. Here, suddenly, he was fully interested, fully tuned-in and fully effective. Not even Johnson in his pomp would have bossed Bortolami around yesterday.
England might have made life a little easier for themselves had they taken advantage of an early opportunity or two. In the opening seconds, Lewis Moody and Riki Flutey contributed to a sweeping attack that saw Delon Armitage denied only by the most desperate of last-ditch toe-pokes from the covering scrum-half Tito Tebaldi. There was a further chance in the opening quarter when Mark Cueto, the most impressive of the English backs, roamed off his wing and forced Gonzalo Garcia into a try-saving tackle on Ugo Monye.
These attacks down the left should have encouraged England, for Italy had chosen to play the career centre Andrea Masi at right wing and left themselves in peril as a consequence. Masi may be strong, fearless in the tackle and more than handy when smashing his way upfield through the heavy traffic, but not even his own parish priest would describe him as rapid. Under-paced and over-matched, he was let off lightly in a first half that ended all square at two penalties apiece.
Masi's frailties must have been mentioned at the interval, for within five minutes of the restart he missed a routine tackle on Monye in an attack launched by the otherwise error-prone Nick Easter, and with runners materialising behind the defence, Armitage was able to free Mathew Tait for a sweet try to the left of the posts. Wilkinson made a nonsense of the conversion but England were still 11-6 ahead and secure in the knowledge that a five-point advantage against a side as toothless as the Azzurri was the equivalent of a 12-point lead over anyone else.
Yet they somehow contrived to transform a sea of clear blue water into something resembling quicksand. Sensing they might yet take something from the game, Italy rediscovered their bearings and kept the visitors at bay until Martin Castrogiovanni, that long-haired pirate of a tight-head prop, stuck his filthy great mitts into an English ruck and headed for the sin bin without further ado. Wilkinson added the three points, yet two penalties from Mirco Bergamasco on 68 and 78 minutes reduced the deficit to next to nothing.
Suddenly, proceedings were not quite so soporific. England survived, thanks to Wilkinson rediscovering his sense of direction at the death, but it was not a comfortable experience for any of the men in white.
Scorers: Italy: Penalties Mirco Bergamasco (4); England: Try Tait; Penalties Wilkinson (3); Drop goal Wilkinson.
Italy: L McLean (Treviso); A Masi (Racing Metro), G Canale (Clermont Auvergne), G Garcia (Treviso); Mirco Bergamasco (Stade Francais); C Gower (Bayonne), T Tebaldi (GRAN Parma); S Perugini (Toulouse), L Ghiraldini (Treviso, capt), M Castrogiovanni (Leicester), Q Geldenhuys (Viadana), M Bortolami (Gloucester), J Sole (Viadana), Mauro Bergamasco (Stade Francais), A Zanni (Treviso). Replacements: M Aguera (Saracens) for Perugini 54; P Canavosio (Viadana) for Tebaldi 55; K Robertson (Viadana) for Masi 57-66 and for Garcia 84; S Perugini for Castrogiovanni 64-75; P Derbyshire (Padova) for Sole 75; F Ongaro (Saracens) for Ghiraldini 83.
England: D Armitage (London Irish); M Cueto (Sale), M Tait (Sale), R Flutey (Brive), U Monye (Harlequins); J Wilkinson (Toulon), D Care (Harlequins); T Payne (Wasps), D Hartley (Northampton), D Cole (Leicester), S Shaw (Wasps), S Borthwick (Saracens, capt), J Haskell (Stade Francais), L Moody (Leicester), N Easter (Harlequins) Replacements: M Mullan (Worcester) for Payne 63; D Wilson (Bath) for Cole 69; L Deacon (Leicester) for Shaw 69; S Thompson (Brive) for Hartley 75; S Armitage (London Irish) for Moody 79; P Hodgson (London Irish) for Care 82.
Referee: C Berdos (France).
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