England had the power, pace and set-piece to see off Italy in their opening Six Nations clash, in Rome. There were also standout performances from England's midfield, Anthony Watson and Sam Simmonds.
Italy 15-46 England No need for innovation as England outgun their hosts
Forget your foxes and your outside-of-the-boxers: England just had better beasts than Italy in their first Six Nations bout. When it came to the scrum, the English were better. When it came to finding that extra yard of pace, England had Anthony Watson and Sam Simmonds, who both nabbed a brace of tries. When it came to bullying your way to an opportunity, England had the George Ford-Owen Farrell axis and a big ol’ dollop of Ben Te’o. In short: their good ones were better than Italy’s good ones, and even if they weren’t at the start of a match-up, they had enough burly mates backing them up to ensure they were by the end.
Italy had their moments, of course. However, Eddie Jones was left comparing his No 8, Simmonds, to the man who has been terrorising the Top 14 for two seasons, Victor Vito. After racking up 23 tackles, missing none in the process, the Exeter Chief showed a sparkling set of heels to score two rapid tries, his second one lobbing more points on the score sheet to make things look very comfortable. On the other side of the happy camper chart, Italy head coach Conor O’Shea was left considering the possibility of being without the great Sergio Parisse next week, away to Ireland.
There was a period in the second half, when Mattia Bellini dotted down and the score was dragged up to 15-27 (Tommaso Allan missed the conversion) that Italian hope was audible. However, England are nothing if not blessed with resources. In the first half, their first-choice nine, Ben Youngs went off with a nasty-looking left knee injury, and the fizzing Danny Care came on. So when Italy were on the hustle in the second half, Jones simply nodded to the bench and had George Kruis, Jonathan Joseph and Jack Nowell injected into proceedings.
There were seven tries from England, a new-ish looking midfield that performed well and a No 8 who is more “good feet for a big man” than Billy Vunipola’s “he’s just rocked that player like a southbound train.” Next week they face the cavalier, Scarlets-riddled, happy Welsh at Twickenham. The Six Nations is box office when these ties come up.
It all began so positively when Watson cantered in off the slick hands from the back-line, that axis of Ford and Farrell supplying the Bath speedster. He got in unchallenged that time, but three minutes later he was arching around Tommaso Boni, using a hand-off to push himself further ahead, ghost past another and bump in to score in the exact same corner for his second score.
Just before the second try, England were cursing their luck with scrum-half Youngs stretchered off, head in his hands and a sense of dread. Already this Six Nations, nines going down with knee complaints is a talking points. Care, his replacement, also knows what it is like to go off early under Eddie Jones. However, many had wanted the Harlequins scrum-half to dictate England’s tempo anyway.
Three Tommaso’s combined to add a few bars of of their own tempo for Italy, though. Boni, perhaps keen to prove his physical worth after being pushed aside like an empty plate by Watson, supplied and supported a Bellini run. With clean ball in English territory, fly-half Allan was in the centre of things as Jonny May crept inwards, away from his wing. A looped pass over his head to Tommaso Benvenuti sent the Italy winger towards the line to score.
Respite was brief. While Italy can bide their time and eventually eke out an opening, England can be relentless when the mood takes them. And they’ll greedily eat up your opportunities. With 32 minutes gone and the score art 17-7 to England’s favour, the hosts get a penalty just beyond the opposite 10m line. With Allan not trusted to go for the poles, Italy opted for the corner. And the English bullied the attempted drive into touch.
Right back down the English end, there was more Italian pressure, but England twice gave away penalties within spitting distance of their line. This is intended as a favourable comparison: England look to be becoming as efficiently cynical near their own line as the All Blacks have been for some time. Stop them crossing, whatever it takes. Eventually, just shy of the half-time whistle, the Azzurri had to satisfy themself with just three points. It is an English stinginess that slowly widens the scores between sides, especially with England continuing to feed the bears.
Boni – an hula hoop of movement all game – thought he had finagled his way through the English defence, but Allan slipped him a forward pass. At the other end, England punted a penalty to touch and from the drive Simmonds was able to slip off the back with Italian forwards gawping, frozen, as he darted through to score. It was the try bonus wrapped up.
England were at the bloody-minded stuff again on their own line. They pulled down a maul and the from another penalty, with England piling into the Italian drive, it eventually slowed to a halt. But with Maro Itoje lying awkwardly in the way on their other side. not that it perturbed the hosts, who zipped it wide left to Bellini who absorbed a Mike Brown hit as he slid on his knee into the corner and just got the ball down in time. Allan could not make the conversion from that far left and England went through the gears again.
If the resistance was never broken it was at least badly bruised, with England claiming another three tries. Farrell and Ford combined again for the latter to scuttle in for a score, England’s fifth. Boni threatened to break free after Farrell telegraphed an interception, but the centre was shackled and it was back to the business of tries. Simmonds got his brace and just to add to Devon’s pleasure, fellow Exeter Chief Jack Nowell got in on the act at the right corner. Farrell missed the conversion from touch – the third he sent astray from out wide.
Italy – Tries: Benvenuti, Bellini. Cons: Allan. Pens: Allan.
England – Tries: Watson 2, Farrell, Simmonds 2, Ford, Nowell. Cons: Farrell 4. Pens: Farrell.