England 31 v 14 Italy
England earned their first win of Steve Borthwick’s tenure with an effective, if hardly emphatic, bonus point victory over Italy. It was an improvement on England’s display against Scotland, but there was little to get the Twickenham crowd off their feet. England’s performance was pragmatic but professional, using their power game to overwhelm the Italians. England’s traditional strengths had a significant say in their win, with their scrum providing a flow of penalties, and most pleasingly for Steve Borthwick, their maul was a weapon Italy couldn’t cope with. Ollie Lawrence produced an excellent performance on his return to the side, constantly battering his way over the gain line. Jack Willis was similarly eye-catching, getting through a mountain of defensive work before being substituted around the fiftieth minute. But those hoping to see exciting new England would have been disappointed, with entertainment at a premium.
For Italy, defeat, although not unexpected, dampens some of the optimism provided by their vibrant performance against France. Italy couldn’t find an answer to England’s power, struggling to deal with their maul effectively, an area that gave England three of their five tries. Italy’s penalty count looks high, but the majority were conceded at the scrum, or when unsuccessfully trying to cope with the English maul, they defended well in open play. The Azzurri played much better in the second half when they managed to get over the gain line more frequently and bring their exciting backs into play more. But in the first half, they were somewhat blown away and once again guilty of overplaying at times, expending needless energy.Embed from Getty Images
The opening ten minutes of the game were very stop-start, with neither side able to get into any rhythm. England’s forwards targeted the breakdown hard, with Maro Itoje being a particular nuisance early on, disrupting Italian ball. Italy were guilty several times of under-resourcing the breakdown and failed to make any of their early possession count. England’s scrum appeared to have an early edge, while there appeared to be a clear tactic to probe in behind the Italian defence, with Owen Farrell and Jack van Poortvliet putting in grubber kicks for England’s wingers to chase. England turned down an early opportunity for three points which was vindicated moments later when Jack Willis rumbled over from a maul.
England’s defence was excellent, with Italy’s forwards repeatedly being knocked backwards, with Willis providing a terrier-like presence. England’s line speed would have pleased defence coach Kevin Sinfield, while Kieran Crowley might have craved greater pragmatism from his side. England’s maul was causing problems again soon after, with Lorenzo Cannone being sent to the sin bin for repeated team infringements. England took full advantage, lock Ollie Chessum crashing over for their second try after England opted to tap and go. England’s power game was putting them firmly in the driving seat, with Lawrence providing constant go-forward in the midfield. England’s kicking game was also causing problems; van Poortvliet’s box kicking was on the money, allowing England’s back three (and their considerable height advantage) to compete in the air.Embed from Getty Images
England thought they had a third try after Malins conjured a moment of magic out of nowhere; spotting the Italian defence drifting across the field, he dummied a kick through before stepping inside and feeding van Poortvliet to go over. It was a fantastic piece of deception, but the try was disallowed when Lawrence was somewhat harshly adjudged to have taken out one of the Italian defenders off the ball. Not to be denied, England reverted to their maul and soon had their third try, Jamie George flopping over the line. England lead by 19 points going into half time, with the Azzurri yet to register a point.
After establishing a strong position through the effectiveness of their pack, the hope was that England would expand their game in the second half and provide some entertainment. But Italy came out firing, starting to win some collisions and generate quick ball as England’s line speed suffered. Unsurprisingly, their first try came from an Ange Capuozzo break, with the full-back a constant threat all afternoon. After slicing into the 22, Italy’s forwards briefly pounded away before prop Marco Riccioni ploughed over. Capuozzo’s threat doesn’t just come from his pace and footwork; he hides himself in the backline cleverly before bursting through at the most opportune moment. Italy’s joy was shortlived, however, with England’s maul forcing a penalty try shortly after, with Simone Ferrari identified as the culprit, receiving a yellow card.
Ollie Lawrence nearly burst through for a try shortly after, Italy struggling to cope with his pace and power, only an excellent cover tackle from Edoardo Padovani denying him. Italy were starting to grow in confidence with ball in hand, and they soon had their second try; Alessandro Fusco identified England’s props in the guard position and darted in between them. At 26-14, and with Italy’s confidence growing, there was a slight air of unease around Twickenham. England kicked away a lot of ball in attacking positions, a clear tactic to attack the space in behind Italy’s defence, but it was becoming somewhat frustrating. However, two of England’s substitutes combined neatly to put the game beyond doubt. Alex Mitchell engaged in a speculative dart across the field just in front of the try line, cleverly drawing in two Italian defenders before feeding the ball to Henry Arundell, who finished with aplomb. The rest of the game featured little excitement and somewhat petered out in a rather muted atmosphere.
There were plenty of encouraging signs for England, with their defence and discipline a significant improvement from their defeat against Scotland, while their set piece was excellent. They looked a far more balanced side with Lawrence in the centres, who provided some much-needed dynamism and was deservedly named player of the match. The back row performed well as a unit, with Lewis Ludlam a constantly busy presence and Jack Willis having a stormer on his return to the side. However, the attack was still a little too one-dimensional, and there seemed to be confusion between van Poortvliet and Farrell. Misunderstandings are natural when bedding in new systems, but England must get their wingers involved more; Ollie Hassell-Collins was a peripheral figure, and Max Malins oozes class on the rare occasions he gets his hands on the ball. It wasn’t an exciting performance, but a looser game would have likely played into the Italian’s hands.
Italy were hamstrung by their inability to match England’s power for the majority of the game, losing most of the collisions and struggling to generate quick ball. They improved in the second half when their forwards carried with greater intensity, giving their backs a better platform to showcase their talents. They were guilty of overplaying at times, and while their ambition is admirable and exciting to watch, sometimes they would be better playing the percentages. If Italy can match up all the components of their game, they could cause an upset. A major concern ahead of their game against Ireland will be their scrum and maul defence, an area where Ireland could hurt them significantly. Still, there is a lot to like about this Italian side.