Monday, 17 March 2014

Six Nations Review - Italy 11 - 52 England

Aim high, the sky’s the limit, et cetera et cetera.  All a load of positive thinking mumbo-jumbo if you ask me.  The real reason for setting excessively high targets, in the work-related arena at least, is that when you do eventually fail to hit your mark, you’re still left in a better position from when you started.  Aim too low, or even too realistically, and there’s a decent chance you might stall.  It’s for this reason that England can feel good about themselves though – in Rome, they failed to hit the 50+ point winning margin that they needed to put pressure on Ireland and increase their chances of winning the Six Nations title, but in failing to do so they managed to produce their biggest win in Rome for 13 years and one of their best attacking displays in recent years.

The majority of realists felt that a 50 point margin was an unfair target for this England side.  Italy are no mugs, and although they had not beaten England before, their last 3 home defeats had come by no more than 5 points on each occasion.  There was a hope, amongst the home fans, that there was a real chance to spring a surprise on the overly-confident visitors heading into this game.  But the English are confident with good reason, and as the sides ran out on a glorious day at the Eternal City, there was a real feeling amongst the travelling support that this was an opportunity for their side to continue their upward trajectory and to showcase their powerful ball-carriers, slick interplay between the forwards and the backs and their renewed attacking intent.

England, though, were looking uncharacteristically clumsy during the opening exchanges, with Dylan Hartley spilling the ball in contact and Mike Brown fumbling a high ball after Jack Nowell had collided with his fullback.  The scrum, too, was feeling the heat as the Italian 8 got the nudge on the ensuing scrum and forced a penalty.  Luciano Orquera, a hero in the victory in their final round victory over Ireland last season, banged over the 3 points, and the Azzurri had the ideal start.

The visitors attempted to respond with a promising attack in the Italian 22, but Stuart Lancaster’s men were guilty of playing too wide and with not enough direction.  A flurry of turnovers and handling errors led to the contest briefly descending into a game of volleyball, with neither side able to penetrate or hold onto the ball for more than a couple of phases, but eventually the Italians  conceded a penalty and Owen Farrell, flawless off the tee last week, made them pay with 3 points.

It seemed that England were still finding their feet, unsure on how to attack a typically physical and aggressive Italian defence – but on 12 minutes they found their rhythm in spectacular style.  Mako Vunipola and Billy Twelvetrees made good metres down the right and in the middle, before quick ball allowed Luther Burrell to pop a delightful offload between two defenders to the onrushing Mike Brown.  The Quins man is proving himself as a lethal finisher at this level after waiting so long for his first try in international colours, and he shrugged off the attentions Michele Campagnaro before beating Luke McLean to the corner.  Farrell added a superb conversion, and the visitors found themselves 10 – 3 up.  Would the floodgates now open?

Not quite.  The Azzurri haven’t been ‘nilled’ in a six nations tournament since 2009 and they were not prepared to let the English walk away with an easy win this time around, and they nearly had a perfect response just 2 minutes later as Nowell fumbled a poor pass from Burrell, and the ball was picked up by Campagnaro, who found the onrushing Leonardo Sarto.  The big winger made a line for the corner but was superbly hunted down by Nowell and Farrell – it was great cover by England, but had Sarto looked inside he would have seen Orquera screaming for the ball with the line at his mercy.

It was a warning shot, and the men in white soon had further evidence they were in a proper match as Orquera slotted another 3 points from another scrum infringement.  Luckily, they responded in the best possible way as Burrell hammered through a gap in the midfield to take play deep into Italian territory.  There, England were forced to be patient as a mistake from Dylan Hartley and then a huge tackle by Angelo Esposito on Jonny May cost them valuable momentum and eventually field position.  They were soon back in the red zone though, and this time they made no mistake as Farrell hit a great short line off a Danny Care snipe to dot down untouched.  The conversion left the score at 17 – 6 with 8 minutes of the first half remaining.

The Azzurri would have been conscious of the fact that they were right in the game against Ireland last week until the final minutes of the first half, when an Irish score knocked them for 6 as they were about to go into the break.  With this in mind captain Sergio Parisse would have been disappointed to see his side concede at an identical time this time around, as a smart Farrell offload found Brown on halfway, and the full back coasted past McLane for another superb try, leaving the score at 24 – 6 at half time.  18 points to the good, with 31 more required to put Ireland under pressure in their game in Paris.  It still seemed like a tall order.

It didn’t seem any easier when Campagnaro, a real find for Italy this tournament, got on the outside of Burrell to break free for a 30 metre break, only to see his pass to Esposito drift forward.  England, though, eventually settled and, with almost 10 minutes gone of error-filled rugby in the second half, set-up camp in the Italian 22. Despite butchering two opportunities from quick taps – the first due to a Vunipola knock on and the second with Burrell having the ball knocked out of his hand as he reached for the line – they weren’t to be denied, as Brown put Nowell over from a set-move off of a scrum.  The score signalled not only the first points of the second period for the title-chasers, but also the reintroduction of Manu Tuilagi, who replaced an unhappy looking Luther Burrell at outside centre.  Clive Woodward and Andy Robinson were critical of the move to take off the Saints centre but, for me, he was having a mixed game and the space created by Tuilagi when used as a decoy runner would be far less easily utilised if he was to appear on the wing.  I think Lancaster made the right call.  Hartley too, who had been solid in the lineout but error-prone in the loose, was replaced by Tom Youngs.

Italy then sought to strike straight back, taking advantage of a botched lineout call, but they were well met by big defence by Chris Robshaw, Ben Morgan and Tuilagi, and England were able to clear their lines.  The Leicester centre was then able to have a big impact at the other end of the pitch, making big yardage up the left after Nowell and Brown had combined beautifully on the side to take play up into the red zone.  Billy Twelvetrees took advantage of the tiring Italian defenders to step through a gap and offload to Vunipola, who bumbled over the line for his first international try.  Five minutes later and England were back over the whitewash again and this time Tuilagi was the scorer; the big man hitting a great line off Farrell to rampage over from 7 metres out.  England’s points difference was now just 10 shy of Ireland’s with 12 minutes to go.  Two more tries would do it – was this young England side going really going to claim the big win that the media had wanted, but nobody had expected?

It would be a big win alright – a phenomenal win – but there would be no surpassing of Ireland’s total.  Firstly Sato – who has had a fine tournament – intercepted a Joe Launchbury pass off the kick off to saunter in for a score which made it 15 points required from the last 10 minutes.  Perhaps sensing that it was their opportunity lost, the English seemed to lose a bit of penetration and direction in the final 10 minutes, failing to find the fluency in attack which has become a trademark of their fast-paced game this Six Nations.  They still found time to finish on a high though as George Ford, making his second England appearance, dummied beautifully to glide through a gap and put Chris Robshaw over for a deserved score.  The final total was 11 – 52 to the visitors, 8 points shy of Ireland’s total, and it was an odd feeling that they were to walk away from their biggest victory in Rome for a decade with a slight sense of regret that they may have left some points out there.

But this bodes well for England.  This young team needs anger, they need frustration, they need drive.  They don’t need success and championships just yet.  The pain of Cardiff one year ago, where a promising England side were destroyed by the Welsh, has galvanised a team that is determined to make an impact of the world game.  As they rewatch Ireland and the wonderful Brian O’Driscoll lift the Six Nations trophy in Paris, they must let the sense of injustice and frustration bed-in – it will serve them well in the future.

Italy Player Ratings

Luke McLean – 5 – Always a reliable presence at the back and an intelligent footballer, but he was shown up for pace badly by Brown, who is not the quickest, for the two tries.

Angelo Esposito – 6 – Didn’t see him in attack, unfortunately, but certainly made an impact in defence with one thunderous hit on Jonny May catching the eye.

Michele Campagnaro – 6 – Will be disappointed with a missed tackle on Brown, and some of his positioning was questionable.  That said, his outside break in the second half reminded us all what a talent he is.

Gonzalo Garcia – 6 – Weighed in with some strong tackles in the midfield but was starved of opportunities with the ball in hand.

Leonardo Sarto – 7 – I wish he’d get involved off his wing more.  The big winger is a real handful and, although he perhaps should have set up a try in the first half, he read the play very well indeed for his own score.

Luciano Orquera – 6 – Kicked well off the tee but he was given no platform to operate from.  Never gave up and got stuck in until the end.

Tito Tebaldi – 6 – Looked lively on a couple of occasions and kept the fringe defence interested, without being able to quite find the space he was looking for.

Matias Aguero – 6 – He was part of a strong scrummaging effort in the first half and his work in the loose and on the carry was notable.

Leonardo Ghiraldini – 7 – The lineout may have been under pressure but he can’t take sole blame for that.  His workrate about the park, though, was first class, and he held his own against his opposite number.

Lorenzo Cittadini – 5 – Had the better of Vunipola early on but couldn’t maintain that dominance for 80 minutes.  Not seen in the loose, much, either.

Quintin Geldenhuys – 5 – He was outmuscled by and large in the tight exchanges and struggled to cope with Launchbury and Lawes’ athleticism over the pitch.

Marco Bortolami – 4 – Disappointing from the veteran.  Was outfoxed by Lawes in the lineout and gave away several silly penalties, resulting in a yellow card for the second row.

Joshua Furno – 3 – An almost invisible presence.  Didn’t carry or tackle enough, and when he did, he did neither effectively.

Roberto Barbieri – 7 – Great workrate by the flanker.  He made 15 tackles – more than anyone else – but he was unable to have an impact at the breakdown, especially in the second half.

Sergio Parisse – 6 – He was a reliable presence when recovering kicks but he was rarely seen taking on good attacking ball, which is a shame.

Subs Used

Michele Rizzo – 6 – Failed to maintain the scrummaging dominance that the hosts had established in the first half, but carried well and with purpose.

 Alberto de Marchi – 5 – Came under pressure at the set piece and failed to have an impact in the loose

 George Fabio Biagi – No time to have an impact

 Paul Derbyshire – No time to have an impact

 Edoardo Gori – No time to have an impact

Tommaso Allan – 6 – Played flat and to the line but was unable to unlock the stubborn white defence

Andrea Masi – No time to have an impact

England Player Ratings 

Mike Brown – 9 – A tediously magnificent display.  If previous games have showcased his reliability under the high ball and ability to kick start attacks by beating the first defender, this game was about showing how is now one of the best finishers in Europe.  The lines he picked for both his tries was superb, as was his strength, speed and balance.  Man of the match.  Again.

Jack Nowell – 6 – A decent display from Nowell who has shown that he is not afraid to mix it with the big boys.  Didn’t come off his wing enough, and when he did he scored, but always looked physical in defence and attack.

Luther Burrell – 7 – A mixed afternoon for the Saints man.  He broke the line well on one occasion and showed great hands for Brown’s first try, but he was also caught out in defence and nearly cost a try with a terrible pass in the first half.  A strong Six Nations though, and he will be very firmly knocking on the door for selection even with the return of Manu Tuilagi.

Billy Twelvetrees – 7 – A quieter day from the Gloucester man, who recovered from a bad pass early on to put good width on his distribution and carry with purpose.  Good vision and hands led to a try for Mako Vunipola.  Still hasn’t quite made the shirt his own.

Johnny May – 4 – Not a good showing.  There is no doubting his ability, speed and footwork, but I do get the impression that he doesn’t have the confidence at this level.  He was turned over more than once and didn’t make the yards he made in previous matches.  Not seen away from his wing, either.

Owen Farrell – 8 – Another excellent display, both off the tee and with the ball in hand.  His decision making improves all the time and his offload for Brown’s second try showed an awareness that he has previously been criticised for lacking.  Lost a mark unfortunately for a silly clearout by the neck later on in the game, but that foolish error couldn’t hide another strong performance by the Saracens man.

Danny Care – 7 – An impressive showing which, although it lacked the fireworks of a trademark Care display, showed that he has mastered the basics of scrum half play, delivering quick ball for the backline outside of him.  He injects pace and threat to proceedings, as he showed as he created the space for Farrell’s score.

Mako Vunipola – 7 – Struggled in the scrum early on, but recovered to hold his own well.  It was in carrying, though, where the big man really impressed, beating 3 defenders and, of course, picking up a try in the process.

Dylan Hartley – 5 – It was another off-day for the hooker.  His lineout throwing was exemplary, as always, but in the first half he was turned over on the carry and made mistakes with his passes as he tried to take on the role of an extra centre, when he should have stuck to what he does best – being direct.

David Wilson – 6 – A quieter day at the office for the big Bath prop, who was unable to make as noticeable impact as last week with the ball in hand.  Recovered well from a rocky start in the scrum.

Joe Launchbury – 8 – It was such a shame that he threw an interception pass because, until then, it was another monumental display from the cherub-faced lock.  Turnovers, tackles, carries, Launchbury was everywhere.  Perhaps some passing practice may be in order though...

Courtney Lawes – 8 – More of the same from Lawes, who rounded off an exceptional Six Nations by running another near perfect lineout and weighing in with his usual selection of rib-tickling hits.

Tom Wood – 7 – Mr Graft was at it again, doing the dirty work that his teammates appreciate so much – making his tackles, clearing out rucks.  Unspectacular, but essential to the balance of this back row.

Chris Robshaw – 8 – Another strong showing for England’s Mr Consistent.  His link play was, as usual, top notch, and he picked up a deserved try by showing good support play like any decent flanker should.

Ben Morgan – 7 – No real blockbusting runs, but a handful none the less.  Usually drew in two or three defenders and was always looking for an offload too.  Will be pleased to have put down a marker to Vunipola.

Subs Used

Tom Youngs – 6 – After the mandatory missed lineout, which, to be fair, seemed to be a botched call more than anything, he was accurate with his throws and destructive in defence.  Didn’t see too many carries, though.

Matt Mullan – Not enough time to make an impact.

Henry Thomas – Not enough time to make an impact.

Dave Attwood – One great gallop from behind halfway showed that he has the athleticism to go with the brute power.  Still keeping 2nd row selection interesting – and that’s with Geoff Parling still to come back.

Tom Johnson – 6 – Provided more of the same on replacing Wood, but with renewed energy.  Made sure he was always first to the contact zone.

Lee Dickson – 5 – Disappointing.  Failed to maintain the tempo like his coaches would have hoped and coughed up possession on  a couple of occasions.

George Ford – 7 – Perhaps took the ball into contact a little too much at first but showed great feet and awareness to set up Robshaw’s try.

Manu Tuilagi – 7 – Looked like he enjoyed being back in an England shirt.  A couple of powerful carries reminded us what we’ve been missing and a typically powerful surge for a try signified that he’s not ready to hand over his 13 shirt just yet.  

What else was happening in the Six Nations this weekend?

Wales 51 - 3 Scotland:  Wales destroyed sorry Scotland, thanks in no small part to a bonkers sending off for Stuart Hogg, who shoulder charged Dan Biggar in the face roughly 10 seconds after the fly half had kicked the ball.  The Welsh gorged themselves with tries, crossing through Liam Williams, George North (2), Jamie Roberts (2), Toby Faletau and Rhodri Williams.

France 20 - 22 Ireland:  Ireland ensured legend Brian O'Driscoll went out in style as they claimed the Six Nations championship with victory in Paris.  They outscored their opponents by 3 tries to 2, with Jonny Sexton (2) and Andrew Trimble crossing, with Bruce Dulin and Dimitri Szarzewski responding for the hosts.  A simple missed penalty and a disallowed try late on made for some nervous moments, but the Irish hung on for a deserved win.

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