England made it two wins from two in Rome today as they nervously held on to beat their Italian hosts by 17 points to 12 in their RBS 6 Nations match.
Only a Matthew Tait try separated the two teams following a match where England refused to use their superior strength with the ball in hand and kicked away much good possession.
Jonny Wilkinson endured an uncharacteristically poor day, as he missed three kicks he would usually slot.
Despite almost scoring through Delon Armitage in the opening exchanges – inside the first minute Italy had to scramble the ball away from their own try-line – it took England nearly an hour to cross the line. As it was, the visitors could easily have been trailing at half time had Wilkinson not slotted his most difficult three point opportunity from wide right on the Italian 22. The teams came in at 6-6, following a half where England had looked likely to score with the ball in hand early on, but had failed to convert this into anything more than a number of penalty opportunities – two of which Wilkinson missed.
Both sides kicked away possession aimlessly in spells throughout the match, though Italy were the more positive of the two teams, they simply did not have the invention required to break England’s solid line. The English team, by comparison, looked deadly when they carried the ball, and some inside passes set through Cueto and the newly returned Ricky Flutey to make solid inroads into the Italian defence, however, on both occasions, they were not well supported.
Armitage looked like the danger man for England, and everything exciting was going through him. It was unsurprising, then, when after 15 minutes of the second half, it was he who supported Monye out wide after he had just beaten his man – Armitage’s quick reverse pass set Matthew Tait free for a foot-race to the line, which he won. Wilkinson then scuffed his conversion attempt, making the score 11-6.
Wilkinson will probably be thankful that the rest of this season’s 6 Nations will not be featuring the Mitre ball he couldn’t seem to get to grips with today.
England seemed to have momentum with them and, when Castrogiovanni, the Italian prop, was somewhat harshly sin binned soon after, it looked like it was time for England to pull away to the twenty point win most commentators had anticipated. However, despite kicking the resulting penalty to further stretch their lead to 14-6, England were in fact pegged back during this power play period as they failed to regain or keep possession for ten whole minutes which culminated in an infraction which Bergamasco punished them for.
At 14-9, England started to wobble, and Italy soon had another penalty scored to narrow the deficit to just two points with nearly six minutes on the clock.
Wilksinson showed a cool head to put a right-footed drop goal from bang in front over with four minutes remaining to take England a try ahead once more, and the match finished to the sound of jeers when Armitage kicked the ball out of play as soon as 80 minutes had elapsed.
England will take only two points from this match and more doubts remain following a display which must prove to them that the kicking game is not suitable for players like Tait, Flutey and Armitage who need ball in hand to make line breaks, and support around them to make incisive moves. Monye yet again refused to offload the ball in good positions, despite England working some good opportunities out wide.
While they have won two from two, unless they can allow their backs significantly more freedom to play uninhibited rugby, particularly away from home, this will not be a Grand Slam winning year for England. For Italy, today was as close as they have come to looking like a team who can hold their own in this tournament: it was a joy to hear the Rome crowd cheering their men on with a chance of victory in the final minutes of a big test match.
As a mark of things to come, Italy will take more heart from this result than England, but it is results that matter, and a win is the least Martin Johnson will have wanted to return home with. France, Ireland and Scotland await England, and, on today’s evidence, they could get little or nothing from any of those matches. Scotland must be worried that, particularly following the announcement that Paterson is unlikely to play again this year, Italy’s resurgence today could spell a wooden spoon for them if they cannot beat England at Murrayfield.
Italy face Scotland at home on Sunday 27th February while England face Ireland at Twickenham next time out straight after that match. Both matches are too close to call following this weekend, so we must wait as patiently as we can for those fixtures to see whether the Jekyll or the Hyde version of Italy or England comes out in each. France are due to travel to the Millennium Stadium the day before.
England and France are now level on four points each, while Wales and Ireland are on two. Italy and Scotland sit at the bottom, with both yet to win despite going very close this weekend. We still await a major upset in this tournament, but it certainly feels like at least one is coming. Roll on RBS 6 Nations week three.