By Charlie Morgan
So that’s that. England’s Six Nations ended in a balmy, frantic Rome afternoon. There is no further silverware to complement their Triple Crown, but over the course of a 52-11 win we learned plenty more about Stuart Lancaster’s young side. This tournament has had something of a coming-of-age feel to it.
If you believe certain critics, failure to win by 50 was a disaster for England. Realistically – although ‘runners-up are the first losers’ talk may look tough – adopting such a macho mind-set would be to disregard a shed-load of positives. Lancaster’s team is no worse for missing out on the title. Ireland conquering Paris so brilliantly does not change a thing. It certainly shouldn’t detract from a comprehensive result at the Stadio Olimpico. A hostile crowd was nullified and the three previous trips to Italy – yielding a combined winning margin of just 13 points – now seem like ancient history.
Accusing English press of sensationalism is easy (and often justified). But here are some hard facts. The Azzuri have not shipped that many at home for nine years – since being beaten 56-8 by France back in 2005. Italy were missing two influential figures in Alessandro Zanni and Martin Castrogiovanni and got battered. It could have been a bigger landslide. Nit-picking is a luxury England fans have not been afforded for years. It should be embraced, but not at the expense of allowing praise when it’s due.
A few jitters, but problem-solving and authority
Lancaster is breaking stereotypes and it was definitely unfamiliar for England to fling the ball wide without first earning go-forward up front. One needless miss-pass from Billy Twelvetrees to Jonny May summed up the early inaccuracy. Italy’s defence was allowed to drift and snuffed out a straightforward scoring chance.
Thankfully, key decision-makers – Danny Care and Owen Farrell particularly – identified that punchy phase-play was the way to go against Italy’s lively but ragged line-speed. Even as it became fractured later, it was simple. Jack Nowell’s try was a fine demonstration of draw-and-pass for juniors to digest.
Once they had calmed down, England’s confidence took hold. Handling errors cropped up, but a competition tally of 64 off-loads – just under 13 per game – and 41 clean breaks is clear evidence more reliance on skill and incision overall. They’ll need similar in New Zealand.
Raft of replacements warranted
Substitutions once more earned disapproval as Luther Burrell and Dylan Hartley were replaced on 53 minutes just as the visitors hit a canter. Undoubtedly, the Northampton Saints pair were crucial cogs in some of England’s best play and their absence initially drained momentum. However, the method was clear. At 31-6 ahead, around 30 points were still required. Manu Tuilagi and Tom Youngs are two of the most destructive runners in the country and a relatively early introduction was designed to give them time to settle before causing havoc.
The next batch of changes – Tom Johnson for Tom Wood and Lee Dickson for Danny Care – came at 66 minutes and 38-6. Sixty seconds later, England had another try with the two new arrivals thriving in the loose. Seeing Leonardo Sarto go over for Italy and effectively end the mission to cancel out Ireland’s advantage, Lancaster took the cue to throw on everybody else. Again, there was nothing disruptive about that decision. His starters were tiring. Dave Attwood charged around like a madman again to book his spot on the June tour and George Ford gave us a glimpse of what could be in store…
Farrell and Ford – an axis from the past for the future?
England Under 20’s Junior World Championship campaign in 2011 ended in heartbreak. A Baby Blacks outfit including Brodie Retallick, Steven Luatua, Charles Piutau and Beauden Barrett sneaked past them in the final. However, a midfield partnership between George Ford and Owen Farrell shone throughout the competition. The latter is now a central figure in the senior squad. In the past two months, his displays against France, Wales and now Italy have been fantastic. This weekend, eight successful goal-kicks accompanied a try, two assists and trademark tenacity in defence.
Twelvetrees may have enjoyed a good Six Nations, but Farrell’s attributes and spikiness suit inside centre nicely – his Test debut was there two years ago, remember? On Ford’s introduction at the Stadio Olimpico, the Bath tyro looked comfortable and a dart to set up Chris Robshaw showed class. The former next-door neighbours’ understanding could well offer England another dimension.
Burrell’s excellence means Tuilagi might have to shift out wide
The call to pull Burrell from the field was not without thought – see above. That said, he had every right to look disgruntled. In fact, that attitude was great to see. Clearly, every second in a white shirt is precious to these players with such stiff competition around. Burrell has comfortably done enough to remain in Lancaster’s thoughts for a long time. This was his best outing – the burst and pass for Mike Brown’s opening try was sublime and more involvements made for more problems in the opposition ranks.
Even so, Tuilagi reinforced his standing as a true game-breaker. A typically barnstorming score brought his record to 11 in 23 Tests – a record that cannot be ignored and means he must be accommodated somehow. Having played all of his junior rugby at Leicester Tigers Academy on the flank, wing is a viable option. It could blend well with the all-court linking of Jack Nowell and Mike Brown’s scything from deep, too. Anyway, there’s another healthy headache for Lancaster. How nice.