On paper, this was a game where England should have gained a fairly comfortable victory. However, the first half in particular showed that this would be anything but that.
England started well, getting a very easy try from Ben Youngs, who went over under the posts following a pass from Owen Farrell. It was too easy for England to score, and it showed how they have natural pace in their team. However, it wasn’t just a case of England attacking with runs through all the time; they were clever at times as well, and Eddie Jones had obviously been working on a few interesting tactics with them. One was that, at scrums, Number 8 Billy Vunipola was the player picking the ball up when it emerged at the back, rather than Youngs. The Leicester Tigers scrum-half was instead delivering the ball into the scrums, and then running into the position of first receiver once the ball had exited the scrum; usually the role of the fly-half. Another tactic they were using was to play grubber kicks from the middle of the pitch to the wings, particularly to Jonny May, which gave them something to run onto. It also gave them the opportunity to pin Italy’s wingers back, and we know that Mattia Bellini and Edoardo Padovani are both threats to opposing defences.
The thing about England is that they are always a team you worry about, because when they have a good day, they have a very good day, but when they have a bad day, they have a very bad day. This first half performance, despite the obvious tactics they had discussed and put into practice, went straight into the very bad category, mainly because of a lack of discipline in the side. They also made costly mistakes, with one being prop Kyle Sinckler’s mishandling of a pass from winger Anthony Watson, which gave Jake Polledri the chance to pick it up and use his pace and direct running to get over the try line in the corner.
There needed to be some changes in the second half for England, and a very early second try for Ben Youngs gave them something to build on. It came following a good dummy pass, which tricked Italy and gave Youngs the extra space he needed to run through and over the line. England on the whole seemed to have more fluency in the second half, which was good to see, but they still struggled to create too many open and clear opportunities, which is something they will need to look at.
However, the try from Sale Sharks flanker Tom Curry, running down the blindside, sealed the bonus point and, although it wasn’t known at this point, the Six Nations title, and it showed that England always maintain a threat, even when not at their best. On the whole, though, the chances that they had were few and far between. The fifth try from Henry Slade helped to turn England’s control on the game in the latter stages into more points, with substitute flanker Ben Earl doing well to set him up.
All in all, England were not brilliant, but did look better in the second half than the first. Given they didn’t play last weekend, when all five of the other teams did in some way, this performance will give them plenty to think about. However, they will also be pleased to have got the job done.
Italy, meanwhile, started the game very poorly, conceding a try in the first few minutes. Their defence was very thin in the central areas, which was what gave Farrell and Youngs the space to run through and score England’s opening try. Italy were also giving away too many penalties for handling errors early on, which meant they couldn’t get any momentum going. In possession, they have plenty of intent, and clearly want to be a creative team, but can’t string the passes together to make anything happen. These have always been Italy’s main problems, and the reasons they have not been able to finish anywhere other than bottom in recent seasons. However, they were both very noticeable in this game.
The thing that was perhaps surprising about Italy was the power that they had in the scrum, and it seemed to catch England out at times. These came once Italy had settled into the game much more, but the mistakes were still there.
The second half brought more of the same for Italy, with mistakes and a lack of discipline. This was a key issue for both sides, but England seemed to calm down in the second half, whilst Italy still made errors, which were a constant feature of their game, with the second half being particularly poor from them.
However, the thing that stopped Italy from attacking with any intent was that they passed backwards down the line, instead of passing more sideways and allowing players to run onto the ball with speed. There was no attempt to get forward as a result, and that made it easy for England to close them down.
MAN OF THE MATCH:
Ben Youngs was really impressive throughout, anticipating the play and constantly offering his side a passing option when they needed one. He scored two tries in the game, and was a menace for Italy until he was replaced by Wasps’ Dan Robson for the final stages of the game.