Two late tries by Exeter duo Sam Simmonds and Jack Nowell gave England the thumping win they needed to overhaul Wales at the top of the Six Nations Championship’s opening-weekend table.
The fleet-footed Simmonds scored two of England’s seven tries in all, matching the effort of the flying Anthony Watson on the wing, as the reigning champions posted a predictable win against a battling Italy here in Rome.
But there is plenty of England to work on ahead of the richly tantalising meeting with Wales at Twickenham next Saturday afternoon, including a couple of instances of the white jerseys being caught in defence as they trusted their back three to push in and still cover the outside.
Wooden-spoon favourites Italy had a try in each half through their wide men Tommaso Benvenuti and Mattia Bellini, and some of their raids had England backpedalling even though the visitors’ set-piece was mostly rock-solid and their backs slickly accumulated three first-half tries.
England led 5-0 with a score in under three minutes, of straightforward, set-piece creation, and with the recalled Ben Te’o pivotally involved.
Dan Cole applied pressure in a scrum near halfway to earn a penalty for a collapse and the resulting line-out in the Italy 22 was secured by Maro Itoje, and transferred immediately via Mako Vunipola to Ben Youngs.
Te’o carried the ball in the direct fashion he was picked ahead of Jonathan Joseph to provide, and that allowed England to sweep left to right through their backs, as Mike Brown made a screening run, and George Ford and Owen Farrell combined to feed Jonny May who put Watson in at the corner.
It was Watson’s 14th try in 29 England Tests and the 15th would arrive within another seven minutes of playing time, but only after the champions had suffered a big blow with Youngs carried off.
The Leicester scrum-half was clearing from a ruck when his left leg buckled under a tackle, indicating a twist of the knee and the England medics immediately called for Danny Care to come on as a replacement and draw level with Matt Dawson on 77 Tests as the nation’s most-capped No.9.
Watson dotted down again at the right corner, for a 10-0 lead, when May again made a dangerous raid away from his left-wing posting to make the extra man in another flowing, width-of-the-field move that began at a scrum.
Watson’s raw pace and a split-second shimmy of the hips and hitch-kick ensured he burned off Italy centre Tommaso Boni on the run-in.
Italy’s inability to impede or even lay hands on England’s fast-moving runners was a horrendous omen for the prospects of the Azzurri, who came into this Sunday-afternoon Championship opener with one win in 20 Six Nations matches, dating back to one of their rare red-letter days when they beat Ireland here at the end of the 2013 campaign.
That record highlighted the huge gulf in class and resources with England, who have finished first or second in the Championship every year since 2011, and have not lost twice in a single Six Nations since 2010.
But super-ambitious England would doubtless see the crucial plot-holes in that particular tale as being the six seasons in the last seven when they have dropped one match and so missed out on a Grand Slam – whereas Eddie Jones’s clear target is the clean sweep, giving it an emphasis similar to the seven straight wins he says is needed to capture a World Cup.
The Italian majority in the near-capacity crowd had to sit on their hands until unleashing a full-throated roar as Italy got on the scoreboard in the 20th minute.
They were entitled to cheer, as Italy managed only six tries in the entire Championship in 2017, and this one had England scrambling as Boni showed good hands to keep an attack going on the left, then play developed for fly-half Tommaso Allan to catch May slightly out of position infield with a long, looped scoring pass to Benvenuti.
While the utility back celebrated his sixth try in 46 Tests – a meagre return compared with Watson’s – there may have been a lingering question mark over Farrell’s left arm looping round Allan’s neck after the pass had been made.
Allan was able to kick the conversion, and cut England’s lead to 10-7, as Farrell had struck a post with his first conversion attempt and nudged the second well wide.
But the Saracens fly-half who slots in as inside centre for England, alongside Ford, soon boosted his personal ledger as England’s front-rowers made punishing carries in centre-field, and eventually Farrell darted through a gap for a try he converted himself for 17-7 with 25 minutes gone.
Italy’s direct attacking continued to create significant momentum, and when England were penned on their own goalline, Mako Vunipola was penalised for hands in the ruck, and Allan landed a simple three points, two minutes before half-time.
The overarching question was whether Italy, with only Sergio Parisse and Leonardo Ghiraldini in their 23 not from the Treviso and Zebre PRO14 teams, could keep the pace and physical onslaught going.
Ghiraldini made a great, lung-bursting retrieval in defence as Care’s box-kick set Itoje on an improbable short-side gallop.
Then Watson lost the ball over the line to blow a possible hat-trick although the pass from Care to the Bath speed merchant looked forward.
It needed a blatant scoop of the ball to keep it in a scrum by flanker Renato Giammarioli for England’s next points, a penalty by Farrell on 46 minutes.
Boni had a try disallowed for a forward pass then England’s set-piece set-up worked a treat again as Courtney Lawes caught a line-out, Italy were kept at bay on the ground, and Sam Simmonds shot clear of the pack with a blast of the foot speed that makes him such an exciting alternative at No.8 to the injured Billy Vunipola and Nathan Hughes.
It gave England the try-scoring bonus point to match Wales’s effort against Scotland on Saturday.
A brilliant finish by Bellini gave Italy their second try, on 57 minutes, with millimetres to spare as Mike Brown was unable to force the wing into touch.
Brown was replaced by Jack Nowell, and Te’o by Joseph, with Watson switched to his regular club position of full-back.
And though it took England a degree of to-ing and fro-ing, at a series of line-outs and mauls in the Italyt 22, they worked their fifth try with a lovely pass of inter-passing between Farrell and Ford as the latter grabbed his sixth England try in 41 Tests, converted by Farrell.
Simmonds raced between two tired Italians for his second try and England’s sixth, and Farrell added the extras to make it 16 points of his own.
And Nowell scooted down the right to finish the scoring from Ford’s lavish long pass off his left hand, and Simmonds’ quick link.
Italy: tries: Benvenuti, Bellini; conversion: Allan; penalty: Allan.
England: tries: Watson 2, Farrell, Simmonds 2, Ford, Nowell; conversions: Farrell 4; penalty: Farrell.
Italy: M Minozzi; T Benvenuti, T Boni, T Castello (rep J Hayward, 73rd min), M Bellini; T Allan (C Canna 73), M Violi (E Gori 63); A Lovotti (N Quaglio 41), L Ghiraldini (L Bigi 54), S Ferrari (T Pasquali 54), A Zanni, D Budd (G Biagi 61), S Negri, R Giammarioli (M Mbanda’ 50), S Parisse (capt).
England: M Brown (J Nowell 61); A Watson, B Te’o (J Joseph 59), O Farrell, J May; G Ford, B Youngs (D Care 10); M Vunipola (A Hepburn 73), D Hartley (capt; J George 54), D Cole (H Williams 54), J Launchbury, C Lawes (G Kruis 59), C Robshaw (S Underhill 67), S Simmonds.
Referee: M Raynal (France).
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