England to face Wales in Cardiff shootout after narrow victory over Italy
Toby Flood kicks six penalties to give Stuart Lancaster’s side a chance of winning first Grand Slam in a decade
Toby Flood runs into Italy’s Gonzalo Canale and Sergio Parisse at Twickenham. Photograph: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images
Date: 10 March, 2013
You would hardly call this a classic Six Nations season but the final duel promises to be fascinating. Assuming, that is, England arrive with something more than the replica pop-gun they waved at Italy in this laboured display, their worst of this championship to date.
Profligate early on and increasingly desperate in the last quarter, England have played better than this and lost. When Graham Rowntree described it as a “massive scare” afterwards he was not remotely exaggerating. With slightly better Italian goal-kicking and a less generous referee, England’s grand slam dream might already be over.
One or two glaring flaws will certainly not have escaped Welsh attention. The outstanding Sergio Parisse and Alessandro Zanni showed up England’s back-row balance, specifically their lack of a specialist number eight capable of rumbling over the gain-line. Out on the wing Chris Ashton continues to look horribly short of form, to the point where his desperation to get involved is transmitting itself to those around him.
In their past three games England have managed the princely total of one try, a statistic that may come back to haunt them. If Wales win by seven points on Saturday, the title will be decided on try count: the Welsh have so far managed seven compared with England’s five. The English head coach, Stuart Lancaster, will certainly look back at the first-half and lament what could – and should – have been. With a touch more composure the hosts would have fancied scoring three or four tries, rather than relying on the boot of Toby Flood who, in total, kicked six penalty goals from six attempts.
Instead England butchered everything, most glaringly when Flood and Alex Goode got into a creative tangle and a 5-1 overlap on the left side of the field went begging. There were other wasteful episodes. Ashton was guilty of a panicky forward pass after being released down the right, while a fine break by Mike Brown also came to nothing when he hesitated about off-loading to Ashton. Goode’s subsequent high pass was also fumbled by Manu Tuilagi out by the touchline.
It scarcely helped Taly when Martin Castrogiovanni limped off prematurely and the visitors were reduced to 14 men for the last 10 minutes of the first-half after the scrum-half Edoardo Gori was sent to the sin-bin for tugging back Flood. Four Flood penalties did at least ensure England led 12-3 at half-time but the home side’s kicking out of hand was below par and they enjoyed less joy in and around the breakdown than has lately been the case.
The game’s most uplifting piece of skill came from Parisse, whose deft little inside ball to Zanni set up the visitors’ most dangerous attack, halted only by a wrongly awarded knock-on. Had Italy scored, the postmortems could have been very different.
If there was one defining snapshot, however, it came eight minutes after half-time. Italy had already closed to within nine points with Luciano Orquera’s second successive penalty when Danny Care attempted a box-kick which flew up and backwards like a skied tee-shot on a gale-swept Scottish links. It was gathered in by the marauding Zanni and Orquera’s deft cross-kick found Luke McLean in space on the left with his opposite wing Ashton nowhere.
The Australian-born McLean duly gobbled the chance, setting the scene for a final half-hour every bit as fraught as the one England had to endure in Rome last season.
A better side than Italy would surely have taken maximum advantage. Despite some intense last-quarter pressure, however, there was no fairytale ending to set alongside their stirring win over France earlier this season, scant justice for players such as Parisse, Zanni and the lion-hearted Andrea Masi.
Cardiff will be a less forgiving backdrop; unless England up their game considerably they will be run straight out of town. The unmistakable sound of feverish Welsh anticipation is already drifting up the M4.