I don’t know anyone who enjoys hangovers, but I am especially pathetic at dealing with them. Loud complaining, guzzling two litres of cola at a time and getting oddly emotional when watching daytime documentaries such as ‘Animal Cops Houston’ are all traits of mine. But none of that would have been as bad as the hangover the Twickenham faithful would have feared following that epic night in Cardiff last Friday – a loss against a heavily unfancied Italian side would have set Stuart Lancaster’s side back beyond square one. But, reading the press in the build up, a page had been turned – this would be an easy victory for a superior and confident side, with no chance of a repeat of a nerve-wracking 18 – 11 England win two years previously, let alone a full-blown Italian upset.
It didn’t start that way though. Despite promising bursts from Billy Vunipola and Mike Brown and a couple of well-snaffled Italian lineouts, England’s own lineout also malfunctioned and, off the back of that, the visitors struck first. Luca Morisi surged down the left, hand side, swatting away weak tackles from Anthony Watson and Dave Attwood, and – after the ball was recycled a couple of times – Sergio Parisse (who else?) threw a dummy and crashed over for the opening score inside 3 minutes. The imposing figure of Kelly Haimona was less intimidating with the boot, scuffing his conversion, but Twickenham was stunned.
And they were soon worried – after England had been penalised twice, the Azzurri built good field position and a smart chip by Haimona for Andrea Masi almost put the Italians in again, but the ball was spilled forward. The upshot of it all was the even more worrying sight of Mike Brown completely out cold having collided brutally with Masi’s shoulder, and the Harlequins man was forced off to be replaced by Billy Twelvetrees, prompting a backline reshuffle.
The tension wasn’t eased by a couple more hairy moments for the hosts – after Anthony Watson had broken free, Luther Burrell threw a poor pass that was intercepted and it was only good covering work by George Ford (and the agricultural left boot of George Kruis) which prevented another score. As it transpired, the penalties began to be blown in favour of the men in white and, after Ford slotted 3 points for a breakdown infringement, he found a good touch from another blast of the referee’s whistle. Vunipola peeled round the front of the lineout to crash forward – with the help of James Haskell – but it looked as though Eduardo Gori had done in enough to keep the comically huge number 8 off the ground. One video referee later, though, and England had 5 points on the board – Vunipola avoiding touch by lying on top of Gori and forcing the ball down. It seemed harsh at the time but, on second viewing, it was probably the right call. Ford missed the conversion, but finally England had some momentum.
And it showed in spectacular fashion as Chris Robshaw forced a turnover in the middle of the pitch, and from that England got the ball into the hands of Jonathan Joseph, who skipped past Haimona and – through the force of having the ball in two hands – bamboozled the covering Leonardo Sarto, who was left trailing in his week. It was a spectacular solo score for the Bath man, and further evidence of why he must be the man to fill the 13 shirt for England in the World Cup. Perhaps alongside Tuilagi? Who knows. Ford added a conversion, and England had a 15 – 5 lead with 30 minutes played.
There were no points in the remainder of the first half but England continued to threaten, despite substitute Samuele Vunisa trampling Ben Youngs into the ground and Haimona missing two further penalty attempts with commendable ineptitude. The hosts, though, should have had another try following a break from Youngs and Vunipola, but Jonny May managed to somehow butcher a clear three on one.
Ford got the second half underway with another three points but, once again, it was the Italians who started with the greater conviction despite English endeavour. Sarto executed a chip and chase to perfection and, although he was hauled down, the ball was flung wide to the impressive Morisi, who scooted between Attwood and Marler and evaded despairing tackles from Haskell and Watson to dive over for a superb score. Haimona, predictably, missed the straightforward conversion. 18 – 10.
The Italian score seemed to jolt the English side into life – especially Ben Youngs, who made the most of a napping Italian pack after the visitors were penalised at a scrum (thanks to good work by Joe Marler) close to their own line, tapping and scooting over from 5 metres for the ultimate opportunist try. A further conversion and a penalty from Ford made the situation very comfortable for the men in white, with 20 minutes still to play.
And it heralded a 10-minute purple patch, much to the delight of the Twickenham crowd. Firstly, that rarest of sights – a first phase score from an English backline (you read that correctly). Off the back of a scrum, Ford popped up in the midfield and, after faking a long pass to split the centres, he popped a delightful ball into the hands of the onrushing Joseph just off his shoulder, and the Bath man cruised over for his second score. It would prove to be Ford’s last intervention, but his replacement Danny Cipiani (making his first Twickenham appearance for 7 years) didn’t do too badly with his first one, feeding turnover ball to May, who scorched past his man on the outside before feeding Cipriani again for the try. Not a bad re-introduction by any means. Nick Easter – another returnee - then rounded off the rout with a well-worked lineout drive, plonking over from under a pile of bodies.
The danger was now that the Italians would be put to the sword, but instead, to their credit, they fought back with real tenacity, perhaps inspired by the introduction of Tomaso Allan, and they were rewarded with the final try of the game – although it came from yet more poor defence. Giulio Besigni first cruised through the English backline before the ball worked its way to Morisi who held off a pretty wet Jonny May tackle to score in the corner for the second try he deserved. It made the final score 47 – 15. Comfortable? Yes. Emphatic? Not quite.
This was a tricky game to analyse for England, despite the fact they won. Lancaster will not be overly chuffed with some parts of play – especially in defence – but the form and vision of many of his key charges will have him quietly satisfied, even if the intensity didn’t reach the levels shown in Cardiff. Yes, it may have been a lose-lose game, but the Six Nations stats show win-win, and that’s all that matters.
ENGLAND PLAYER RATINGS
15. Mike Brown: 6. A couple of lively early touches, a rare missed tackle and then out for the count in one of the most brutal KOs I’ve seen. Good to see him up and about afterwards, though.
14. Anthony Watson: 7. Some more promise from the Bath man, who filled in at full back for much of the game. Perhaps not as involved as he would have liked but some good takes of the high ball and a couple of sharp breaks caught the eye.
13. Jonathan Joseph: 9. What can’t he do at the moment? A threat with every touch of the ball, Joseph has that electric ability which makes him ludicrously hard to defend. His second try was a very well-executed line break, but his first was just individual brilliance. Man of the match.
12. Luther Burrell: 6. A solid display from Burrell but we didn’t see a whole lot of him. He helped make some important choke tackles in the middle but he still misses too many in open play for my liking. Is he just keeping the shirt warm for Manu?
11. Johnny May: 5. A bit disappointing – this was his chance to shine after such a promising autumn. One moment of pure class to set up Danny Cipriani aside, May’s display was more memorable for his mistakes – butchering an overlap and failing to smash his man into touch for Italy’s third try.
10. George Ford: 8. His place kicking looks pretty assured at the moment but his decision making and execution in open play is really impressive as well. The dummy long pass and soft pop to Joseph for the centre’s second score was rugby poetry in motion.
9. Ben Youngs: 6. A bit of a mixed bag really – some dodgy passes and unlucky bounces on kicks blotted his copybook, but otherwise his service and kicking game was solid and he made some sharp breaks and good decisions...none more so than his smart quick tap to score by the posts.
1. Joe Marler: 8. A very impressive display from the Quins man who just seems to get better with every game in international colours. Had Castrogiovanni in trouble for much of the game and tackled with superb physicality – although he was partly to blame for Italy’s second score.
2. Dylan Hartley: 6. Perhaps the man who should be most nervous about his spot in the side. The lineout wobbled badly at first (although it did recover) and he doesn’t seem as prominent around the pitch as usual.
3. Dan Cole: 6. Not as dominant as last week but still was on top in the set piece and chipped in with his mandatory couple of turnovers. He still looks like a class act though despite so long out of the game.
4. Dave Attwood: 5. Another to slightly disappoint, especially after such a good showing last week. He was impressive in the lineout and had a couple of decent carries, but he was also disappointingly fragile in defence, missing 3 of an attempted 8 tackles. For an enforcer, that’s not good enough.
5. George Kruis: 6. The Saracens man continues to impress in some aspects – ferociously physical at the breakdown and around the park, he has proven to be a real source of energy for the pack. However, he will be disappointed with his missed tackle count, too, and he could do with showing more with the ball in hand.
6. James Haskell: 7. Not quite as impressive as last week, but it was still an all action display from Haskell. He made plenty of tackles and carried hard all game, but he was penalised twice by the referee for silly offences. Good support work for Vunipola’s try.
7. Chris Robshaw: 8. The usual consistent excellence from the England skipper. He topped the tackle charts once again with 19, and chipped in with another couple of turnovers – including one which set up Joseph’s first try.
8. Billy Vunipola: 8. Arguably his most impressive display for England. Some barnstorming runs with huge leg drives caught the eye and he did very well to say in field for his try. 17 tackles made as well shows his appetite for the game and his fitness is improving.
Replacements: 7. Twelvetrees was on for much of the game and showed some nice touches with the ball in hand but missed far too many tackles. It was good to see Easter and Croft back at Twickenham too, with both delivering impressive cameos and Easter snaffling a try, whilst the headline went to Danny Cipriani, who looked lively and set-up and scored a try with his first and second touches.
ITALY PLAYER RATINGS
15. Luke McLean: 6. Used more as a kicker than a counter-attacker – and he was effective in that role – but we didn’t see him attacking from deep or joining the line as we have seen previously for Italy, or for Sale.
14. Leonardo Sarto: 6. Some good moments, such as swift hands for Parisse’s try and a smart chip and gather in the second half, but they were flashes. Caught out with his defensive positioning more than once – glaringly for Joseph’s first try.
13. Luca Morisi: 8. May have been man of the match if he wasn’t turned over for Joseph’s try. His strong run set up Parisse’s score and then he grabbed two himself – the first by spotting a gap and showing great pace to get through it, the second with superb leg strength to stay in field under pressure. Fine performance.
12. Andrea Masi: 5. The Wasps man was kept pretty quiet as his centre partner stole the glory. We’re used to seeing Masi carry with real aggression but we didn’t really see that on Saturday.
11. Giovambattista Venditti: 5. A big powerful winger, but he had little involvement in the game. Only three carries for a man of his ability was a disappointment.
10. Kelly Haimona: 4. Some smooth touches in the opening exchanges were misleading. Haimona loves contact and is clearly a passionate player, but he lacks the vision to unleash some of the genuine talent Italy now have out wide. Missed 6 tackles too, which was frankly appalling.
9. Edoardo Gori: 5. To be fair to Gori, it must be tough playing with the world’s first crash-ball fly-half outside him, with a pack going backwards. But we didn’t see any of the invention which has stood Gori out in recent years.
1. Alberto di Marchi: 6. Just about held his own against Cole but couldn’t get involved in the attack. Impressive in defence though, making 9 hits.
2. Leonardo Ghiraldini: 5. I’m a big fan of Ghiraldini, but the lineout wobbles early on hurt Italy and, despite lots of endeavour, he was surprisingly (and unusually) ineffective on the carry for once.
3. Martin Castrogiovanni: 5. Poor Castro. The heart is still there, as he showed with 10 tackles – none missed – to lead his side’s tackle charts, but the body is fading. Lost out badly to Marler in the scrum and gave away far too many penalties.
4. George Biagi: 6. The rangy lock made some eye catching runs but was under lots of pressure in the set piece. Still, a positive display within the Italian pack – which was a rarity on the day.
5. Marco Bortolami: 5. Lots of hard work at the breakdown, but for me he is just too old now. He doesn’t carry the aura that he used to and is now targeted as a potential weak link in the defensive line.
6. Francesco Minto: 5. Far too quiet. I know that blindside flankers are supposed to do the unseen work, but I actually forgot he was on the pitch at one stage. Ineffectual on the carry.
7. Mauro Bergamasco: 5. He looked knackered before the game had even started. His passion is still there but, simply put, 1 carry and 7 tackles is not enough of an output for any international flanker. Compare his stats to Robshaw’s for example.
8. Sergio Parisse: 8. Almost tedious predictability, the best of the Italian forwards. Great awareness and dummy for his try, carried hard and tackled relentlessly throughout the game. A true great of Italian rugby.
Replacements: 7. Tommaso Allan and Samuele Vunisa both caught the eye on their introductions. Allan was lively out wide and Vunisa using Ben Youngs as a doormat got the Italian fans very excited. Both surely have to start next round. Bisegni also made a lovely clean break with his first touch.