Now raise your game! England must improve after scraping past Italy
When the RFU start sifting through the applications for the England head coach job on Wednesday they will find Stuart Lancaster’s c.v. minus one detail – Test coaching record: played two, won two.
The man in temporary charge of the national team formally submitted his application before this RBS Six Nations began. ‘Hopefully they are watching,’ said Lancaster in the aftermath of his side’s second straight victory, on Saturday in the snow-swept Stadio Olimpico.
Of course they will be watching closely, but it might be better if they just checked the final score or flicked through the highlights. For the devil truly does lie in the detail.
High-flyer: Tom Palmer gets the jump on Alessandro Zanni at the lineout
Securing back-to-back victories away from home is a major feat for a team short of Test caps and time together. Their results point to strong character and fighting spirit, a decent platform. But the RFU hierarchy will share Lancaster’s belief in placing events in context, which is where the picture becomes clouded.
They will be aware that England have scraped past the two weakest teams in the Six Nations courtesy of a hefty dose of good fortune. That is not just a cynic’s interpretation – captain Chris Robshaw admitted on Friday his side had been ‘lucky’ to beat Scotland and, if that was an indisputable truth, it was to an even greater extent true in this disjointed scrap in Rome.
There is no escaping the fact that, if Italy had a kicker of Owen Farrell’s class, they would have claimed their first victory over England. Having led 15-6 after two tries just before half-time, the hosts saw their ambitions flounder on the failure of Tobias Botes to land two kickable late penalties which would have reflected their superiority in that period as the visitors sought to hang on to their advantage.
Sergio Parisse, the captain of the Azzurri and man of the match yet again, said it jarred to lose to a ‘poor’ England team and, while that comment lacked grace, he had personally done more than enough to be on the winning side.
New kid on the block: Owen Farrell's kicking display was faultless
Those who decide Lancaster’s fate will also note the gulf between talk of bold attacking intent and the largely stodgy fare served up. Granted, conditions were not suited to deft handling, quick ball and fancy footwork, but England were too quick to fall back on the option of launching an aerial onslaught and waiting for Italian errors.
There was a glimpse of cohesion, vision and good support play early on, but it wasn’t until after Charlie Hodgson’s second charge-down try in a week, in the 50th minute, that England really built a head of steam. The arrival of Ben Morgan and Lee Dickson delivered improvement. Scarlets No 8 Morgan showed his ball-carrying threat with a number of rampaging bursts and Dickson did what he does so well for Northampton, linking forwards and backs quickly and efficiently.
For the best part of 20 minutes, Lancaster’s side gave an impressive account of themselves with front-foot power and a willingness to go wide. During this purple patch they went ahead as Farrell, his head bandaged because of a cut, maintained his flawless kicking with two penalties to add to the two he had struck before half-time and his conversion of Hodgson’s try.
His perfection under pressure meant the visitors gained maximum return on their best efforts, which is just as well because they went back into their shells late on. With Italy swarming forward in search of a score to turn the game, England again resorted to the kick-and-hope routine. Had it not been for Hodgson’s intervention – charging down Andrea Masi’s kick and pouncing to score on the left, much as he had done at Murrayfield – Lancaster’s men may have been down and out.
Winning score: Charlie Hodgson crosses for England's only try
Ben Foden was especially grateful to his fly-half. He and Ben Youngs had spilled a deflected kick in their 22, allowing Giovanbattista Venditti to touch down on the right, then the full back’s loose offload on halfway was intercepted by Tommaso Benvenuti, who scorched clear to go in under the posts. The latter try was converted by Kris Burton, whose penalty shortly after half-time put Italy 15-6 ahead.
The lapses by Foden were symptomatic of a lack of precision from England, again evident in their line-out, although the scrum mostly held up against a renowned pack. In that regard and in his carrying around the field, London Irish prop Alex Corbisiero gave his best Test performance so far.
There were also improvements from No 8 Phil Dowson and lock Tom Palmer, but Dowson is still in danger of losing his place, such was Morgan’s impact. Elsewhere, there are growing concerns about Youngs, who appeared to lose his temper after being replaced at scrum-half by Dickson.
The gifted Tiger is putting body and soul into his work but his box kicking has been wayward, his delivery mixed and he is wasting energy berating referees for perceived ruck offences rather than focusing on bringing urgency to England’s attacks.
Big impact: Ben Morgan impressed again off the bench
WHAT THE STATS SAY…
2 – scrums lost by England. Italy won all five of their feeds, while the visitors won just three from five. One
of those steals came late and left forwards guru Graham Rowntree growling.
VERDICT: ITALY WIN
5 – successful kicks from five attempts for Owen Farrell. Italian hopes were hit by Tobias Botes missing two late kicks – his last attempt especially dire – and Kris Burton one.
VERDICT: ENGLAND WIN
85 – tackles made by each side, reflecting the closely-fought nature of the match. Last week England had to make more than 200 in their narrow win over Scotland.
7 – England managed five and Italy only two – but neither side can be happy with their efforts. The desperately low offload rate highlights the lack of flow and attack in the match. There is plenty of room for improvement for both teams in this department.
VERDICT: ENGLAND HOLLOW VICTORY
10 – penalties conceded by Italy – plus one free-kick. England kept their count to single figures, committing
VERDICT: ENGLAND WIN
1 – England only broke the line once – courtesy of Brad Barritt in the second half – and this remains the team’s biggest problem. Stuart Lancaster’s young side can defend but there is no sign of the cutting edge needed to beat top teams.
VERDICT: ENGLAND FAIL
147 – passes made by England compared with Italy’s 118, yet all that smooth handling brought just one try for the visitors.
VERDICT: TOOTHLESS ENGLAND
Had Danny Care not been barred from the squad for drink-driving he would surely have started but, even so, Youngs may be usurped by Dickson for the Wales game at Twickenham on February 25. /02/12/article-2100122-11B37698000005DC-621_224x1497.jpg” width=”224″ height=”1497″ alt=”England Average Rating.jpg” class=”blkBorder” />