By Alex Lowe
THE GRAND SLAM is still on for England after they scraped past Italy with an unconvincing performance, their worst under Stuart Lancater given both the context and the expectations. Suddenly, Wales are back in the title hunt. So where did it go wrong for England on Sunday? Where did it go right? And how do they approach the Millennium Stadium decider?
England started the game exactly how they wanted to with tempo, offloads and variety in attack. Their scrum set down an early marker too and 6-0 after 15 minutes was a decent foundation. But England allowed Italy a route back into the game by failing to take their try-scoring chances.
England lacked composure, accuracy and vision in attack. Toby Flood said Italy create an “illusion of space” and England got sucked in. At times, when defenders needed to be fixed, they were not direct enough. At other times overlaps were wasted by poor decision-making or poor execution.
Try-scoring is an issue for this England team. They have scored five so far this championship. In 2003, England’s Grand Slammers ran in 18.
Manu Tuilagi is England’s most potent attacking weapon. Is he their only attacking weapon? Chris Ashton is a shadow of his former self, while Mike Brown and Alex Goode are not in the side for their finishing. Had England taken those chances, Italy would have had no way back.
But the Azzurri fed off England’s mistakes, they grew in confidence and turned the tables. In the end, they deserved at least the draw. Andrea Masi was named Man of the Match but the top three contenders were all Italian. Sergio Parisse and Alessandro Zanni were also magnificent.
Yet Italy left Twickenham empty handed because England, with their backs against the wall, reverted to type: the bedrock qualities of this team are character and defensive fortitude. Italy, for all their might, could not break England down in the final stages.
England have relied on sheer bloody-mindedness to win three successive matches.
Will it be enough to see off Wales and win the Grand Slam?
Stuart Lancaster has some key selection decisions to make before the trip to Wales, some of which will betray how England intend to compete with a Welsh side that has not conceded a try in three matches.
I suspect England would be more comfortable in a battle royal than by trying to play attacking rugby. Brad Barritt or Billy Twelvetrees is that tactical debate in a microcosm.
Barritt will surely start with Owen Farrell at fly-half (assuming he is fully fit) and Ben Youngs at scrum-half, offering superior game management to Danny Care.
The two biggest calls will be at blindside flanker and right wing. Is Tom Croft ready to start a Test match of that magnitude just six matches after returning from a broken neck? Or do England stick with the muscular presence of James Haskell?
And what to do with Chris Ashton? Kyran Bracken has advocated he should be dropped because he appears devoid of confidence and is a defensive weak link. The alternatives in England’s senior squad are David Strettle or Ben Foden. I suspect Lancaster will stick with Ashton – but that maybe the call George North would make as well.
Follow Alex Lowe on Twitter @AlexMLowe