What's hot and what's not from England's 2017 Six Nations clash with Italy at Twickenham
England secured the bonus-point win that was expected against Italy in round three of the Six Nations, but the manner in which they did so was not what was expected. Italy led 10-5 at the break having frustrated England for 40 minutes with their tactics at the breakdown and only allowing the hosts to escape their own half on rare occasions.
Eddie Jones’s team responded with two quickfire tries early in the second half and crossed the whitewash six times in all, but they still didn’t have it all their own way.
A second consecutive Grand Slam is still on the cards for England – as is a record for the most consecutive Test wins – but this performance will have given Scotland and Ireland hope ahead of their matches in coming weeks. Here’s a look at the good and the bad…
Italian nous – Yells of ‘offside’ and all-round groans dominated the first half. The Twickenham crowd were clearly not impressed by Italy’s tactics of standing off after a tackle and not forming a ruck, therefore ensuring there was no offside line so they could consistently harry England and disrupt Danny Care’s passing game. Teams have done this before but no one to as good effect as the Italians here.
Not only did England look at a loss as to what was going on, frustration growing each time Romain Poite called “tackle only”, but it meant Italy had a strong blue line of defenders to hold off England’s next wave.
Yes, it’s not a positive tactic and rugby would be an unattractive game if every team did it for 80 minutes. Eddie Jones said “it wasn’t rugby”, even if he did congratulate Italy for being “brilliant in their execution”.
Yet who can blame Italy for employing it here? Talk in the build-up had been about relegating them from the Six Nations and how England were going to rack up a huge score – remember Jones saying he wanted his team to take Italy to the cleaners? They’re fighting to prove they deserve their place in the championship and while it wasn’t pretty, it was effective, especially for a team under such pressure.
Conor O’Shea said of the tactics afterwards: “When Wasps score a try to beat Toulouse in the European Cup and David Pocock intercepts a ball in the autumn Internationals it’s brilliant, but when Italy do this it’s not allowed. I’m incredibly proud of the players and I’m sick of people having a pop. I hope we got a bit of respect out there.”
Take two – In the second half, when England decided to put pace on the ball and spread it wide, rather than get caught up in their breakdown travails, they were able to stretch Italy, find space and score tries. They also got the upper hand at the scrum, that dominance up front allowing them to use their dangerous runners. They still didn’t dictate play for the whole 40 minutes, but it was enough to secure the bonus-point win.
Special mention also for Joe Launchbury. Man of the Match in Wales and Man of the Match again against Italy, he gave England go-forward with strong carries in the second half, gets through a huge amount of work at close quarters and was a calm head throughout.
Return of the drop-goal – Johnny Sexton slotted a drop-goal against France in Dublin and less than 24 hours later Tommaso Allan dissected the posts with one at Twickenham. You don’t see many DGs in top-level rugby these days so it was good to see two in as many days – and Allan’s one was vital for Italy. It was a reward for a wealth of possession and territory in the first half when he hadn’t been able to notch points from the tee.
Campagnaro magic – This was Michele Campagnaro’s first start in this championship and he was probably Italy’s most dangerous player. His try was a beauty: beat George Ford, cut between Jamie George and Elliot Daly, stepped Mike Brown and slid over. It showed all his talents and was well deserved.
England naivety – “I’m the referee not a coach.” Those were the words of Romain Poite when asked on two occasions by England players how they could combat Italy’s tactics at the tackle area and make it a ruck, thus introducing an offside line. And it was the quote of the day.
England’s inability to think on their feet and work out an answer to the problem was worrying – as was the frustration seeping into the hosts’ game, which resulted in them forcing passes and attacks. It’s not the referees job to provide the answers; these players are internationals and should be able to do that themselves.
Why continue to commit numbers to do the breakdown when they have no counter-ruckers to hold off? That simply meant Italy outnumbered England and could withstand the attack. Why not pick and go, forcing the Italians to tackle and defend at close quarters? Or charge through the middle? These questions were not asked let alone answered, as England seemed unable to react to something unexpected.
Coaches chipping in – One of the Italian back-room team, bringing on the tee for a Tommaso Allan penalty attempt in the first half, raised an area of concern with referee Romain Poite while he was on the pitch. Hopefully this doesn’t become a common trend. Yes, messages are passed from coaches to players via water carriers and physios, but they should not be having direct conversations with the referee during the game. That should be left to the players in general and the captains in particular.
Farrell’s boot – Owen Farrell is renowned for his cool head and unerring boot in front of goal, that’s why he’s reached 50 caps so quickly. Yet on the occasion of his half-century, his usual accuracy was missing. Not only did he miss three conversions and one penalty attempt – albeit they weren’t easy – he also failed to find touch with one penalty and kicked the ball dead with another when England opted for territory rather than a shot. England will be hoping he is back on target when Scotland come calling in two weeks for the Calcutta Cup match.
16 – Offloads made by England compared to just two by Italy. They also made 11 line breaks to five.
110 – Metres made by Mike Brown, the only player to hit three figures. England made 589 overall compared to 357 by Italy.
67% – England’s scrum success compared to 86% for Italy.
England: M Brown; J May (J Nowell 56), B Te’o (H Slade 76), O Farrell, E Daly; G Ford, D Care (B Youngs 52); J Marler (M Vunipola 56), D Hartley (capt, J George 56), D Cole (K Sinckler 72), J Launchbury, C Lawes, M Itoje, J Haskell (J Clifford 72), N Hughes (T Wood 72).
Tries: Cole, Care, Daly, Nowell 2, Te’o. Cons: Farrell 3.
Italy: E Padovani; G Bisegni (T Benvenuti 52), M Campagnaro, L McLean, G Venditti; T Allan (C Canna 62), E Gori (G Bronzini 36); A Lovotti, O Gega, L Cittadini (P Ceccarelli 52), M Fuser (G Biagi 72), D van Schalkwyk, B Steyn, S Favaro (M Mbanda 58), S Parisse (capt).
Tries: Venditti, Campagnaro. Con: Allan. DG: Allan.
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