This game was a must-win for England, and they needed to win well after their disappointing performance against Scotland last weekend. However, whilst Italy, all respect to them, were the perfect opponents for this, they would also not be an easy opponent, having shown moments of quality in their match in Paris last weekend. In this game, we saw a few interesting things, which we will look at now.
England needed to start well, as mentioned, but didn’t, and Italy were on top in the opening stages of the match. However, the Italians’ opening try sparked the home side into life, and they played with more speed and urgency, asking more questions of the defence. A penalty scored by captain Owen Farrell through the posts also helped England’s confidence, and they took more control of the game, forcing their opponents back. However, it was a game requiring a dogged performance, and England needed to fight hard at times. Their opening try from Exeter Chiefs lock Jonny Hill reflected that, as it came after a push on the ground, but they had too much for Italy’s defenders in the end. They may have been lucky with the try, as a double check might have ruled it out, but England still had to play well to score it, and that is the key point.
It was noticeable that England also weren’t kicking forward as much, which was a key part of their tactics last week. Instead, they opted to pass along the line much more, looking for and finding gaps, and Bath winger Anthony Watson did just that to score. Italy couldn’t block all the spaces off, and another good spell with the ball saw Gloucester winger Jonny May find a small amount of space to score, taking to the air to get over the line without being pushed into touch. This higlighted the confidence that England had in the first half.
There were still a few areas of concern for them, though, with errors in possession preventing them from building up momentum at times, so there is still work to do in key areas of the game. This came down to a lack of communication and composure at times, so it is something that can be fixed relatively simply.
In the second half, England played with a higher intensity, engaging in tackles earlier, looking to stop the likes of scrum-half Stephen Varney from playing the ball quickly. This demonstrates how they had studied the Italian players and devised a few ways to restrict them creating chances. In attack, there were fewer opportunities for both sides, with the play being more tightly fought, and every metre gained made a difference. The arrival of Leicester Tigers prop Ellis Genge added more energy ot the England team, as he is a livelier option in the front row, with good feet and the ability to drive England forward whenever he gets the ball. The second half saw the home side play with increasing confidence, but they still had a few areas to work on, and definitely left a few points out on the pitch. However, with a win being all that mattered, they will be relieved to have got that and the bonus point, and can now work on the things that still need improving over the next two weeks.
Italy started the game well, with their early speed on the ball helping them to create space and score their first try, through winger Monty Ioane. This is something we have mentioned before as one of Italy’s biggest strengths, because, when they slow the play down, they are easy to defend against, but, when they play quicker, they are more difficult to stop. However, as mentioned, their heads dropped when they conceded their first penalty, and we feared that this would be the start of them retreating and leaving spaces open for England. However, to their credit, Italy defended really well, with winger Luca Sperandio, quickly becoming one of the most important players in this Italy side, causing plenty of problems for England’s attackers on the wings. He also carries a good threat in attack, as was shown last week, so he is definitely one for the future with Italy.
They continued their good play after half-time, playing some of the best rugby we have seen from them in a very long time. It wasn’t perfect, as England’s third try came from Watson intercepting a pass from impressive young fly-half Paolo Garbisi to flanker Sebastien Negri, which saw the England player run the length of the field, but there were plenty of good signs from them throughout the game.
However, whilst they were winning penalties, they then tended to give one away straight after, and that hampered their performance, stopping them from taking advantage of those gains. However, the simple fact is that they were always in the game, whereas they would have normally lost all energy by half-time. This will give them good hope going forward, and will maybe answer a few of their critics, who have been asking whether Italy have the ability to play for a full 80 minutes. However, they now need to take their chances, rewarding themselves for making those advances, and that will give them a better chance of winning a game.
One player who made a big impact on the game was 22-year-old Benetton lock Niccolo Cannone, who was outstanding in defence for his team. He kept crashing into England players, including props, and also held up tries on the line, such as George Ford’s attempt to score late on in the game. His all-round performance gave Italy something to build on, and ensured his team were always in the game.
MAN OF THE MATCH:
There were several excellent players for both sides, but winger Jonny May was one of England’s best players in this game. He scored tries, made excellent runs, carried a threat throughout, kicked well when he needed to, and even got involved with mauls where needed. He was involved in the majority of England’s good moments, and helped them to get the win.
The Six Nations takes a rest next weekend. England’s next game sees them travel to Cardiff to renew their yearly rivarly with Wales, with that game taking place on Saturday afternoon in two weeks. Italy, meanwhile, are back at home, hosting Ireland at the Stadio Olimpico earlier on the same day.