By Ben Coles
So Stuart Lancaster’s men survived the blizzard of Rome and you could say the unique conditions left a significant mark on the quality of the game; this was no weather for miss passes and frivolous skill. Or is that being too generous?
All England fans wanted at half-time was a reaction. England had just conceded two tries within three minutes based on errors, both initiated in some form by Ben Foden. To concede two scores and go from 0-6 on the scoreboard to 12-6 so soon afterwards was a hammer blow for all the hard yards and draining work England had put in up to that stage.
Unfortunately, the response didn’t com in the opening minutes as England managed to concede three penalties in five minutes, taking the margin from six points to nine. Yet salvation was not far behind and came from that unlikeliest of heroes once again. Now, either Charlie Hodgson has been studying the art of the charge down intensely over the last few years, or he has an uncanny sense of timing, but here he was once more, with the bounce once again falling in his favour for him to simply collapse upon it and bring England back into the game.
From that moment on, with replacements Lee Dickson and Ben Morgan on the field, the momentum swung England’s way. Morgan’s powerful breaks and Dickson’s cleaner delivery put England in the right positions to create the chances that seemed so hard to come by in the first half. That intensity that they bring to the table needs to be used for 80 minutes, not for 30, particularly with Dickson because Ben Youngs is in a terrible run of form. When a scrum-half is playing well, everything comes naturally and looks easy. There is no hesitation, the pace of both the pass and the thought processes are doubled. For Youngs, right now there are too many inner demons for him to perform to the best of his ability.
England also needed their set-piece to start functioning more consistently. After a few early scrums where he looked to be in trouble, Alex Corbisiero turned his game up a notch. Before Martin Castrogiovanni ambled slowly from the field with a fractured rib, he was experiencing similar frustration at the coalface. Corbisiero’s work in the loose was more eye-catching than we’ve seen before at Test level, and the same can be said for his propping compadre Dan Cole.
In the lineout, Dylan Hartley struggled to find his man enough times for his place to now be questioned. Tom Palmer worked tirelessly to secure English possession when it mattered, but he was foiled many times by a return to form from Marco Bortolami. Italy did their utmost to cut off England at the source, they just couldn’t keep it up for 80 minutes.
Where Italy did constantly trouble England however was at the breakdown. Stuart Lancaster will take great pride in England’s discipline, but the reason that they are no longer driving supporters to distraction with myriad offences is potentially more troubling. They are now barely contesting the rucks. Following the Welsh template of minimal commitment and fanning out in a long, heavy-hitting line, England gave their opposition both the time and confidence to try out more plays. It’s an area of their game that needs work and refinement pretty quickly.
Finally, a few words for Owen Farrell. The comparisons of the blooded and bruised young Saracen and a wounded Paul Ince in the same stadium 15 years earlier are difficult to ignore. After yesterday’s performance, there is no doubting his temperament or ability at this level. Five crucial kicks, all successful prove he should be at the core of England’s future for the next decade.