England hold off rejuvenated Italy before going for the throat
Anthony Watson’s early try sets the tone in Rome but O’Shea has plenty to work with
Sam Simmonds breaks to score the first of his brace of tries against Italy. Photograph: Shaun Botterill/Getty
Italy 15 England 46
The Six Nations has barely started but, suddenly, all roads lead to Twickenham. If Wales have enjoyed the most spectacular start to this year’s tournament, there was enough sharpness and intent about England’s first outing of the year to suggest next Saturday’s tribal collision will not disappoint. On the evidence of this seven-try Roman romp, the Welsh defence should certainly anticipate a tougher work-out than Scotland could supply.
While seven tries, including an impressively-taken double for both Anthony Watson and Sam Simmonds, against a callow Italian side is pretty much par for this particular fixture in recent times, coach Eddie Jones will have seen enough to be reassured his side, particularly with ball in hand, are heading in the right direction. At the same time he must now brace himself for the possibility of spending the rest of the Championship without Ben Youngs, whose nasty-looking knee injury clouded an otherwise beautiful sunny afternoon in the Eternal City.
It also has to be said that Italy, for all their enthusiasm and obvious potential, are not yet the definitive yardstick by which potential grand slam champions should be measured. Their defensive organisation in the first half, in particular, left plenty to be desired and England did not have to split the atom to create several of their tries. That said, the 10-12 midfield link between George Ford and Owen Farrell has rarely looked slicker and in Watson and Simmonds it is already clear Jones has two of the deadliest finishers in their respective positions in the entire tournament.
With Jack Nowell also popping up for a late score and Alec Hepburn coming on to win his first cap, this was also a result to be savoured in Exeter, with Simmonds even popping up to supply the final scoring pass to his club-mate. Perhaps the abiding impression, though, was of an England side whose set-piece is starting to grow stronger and whose collective expectations are also rising. When Ben Te’o has a bit more rugby in him and Billy Vunipola and Elliot Daly are back to complement other top-class Lions such as Maro Itoje, Mako Vunipola, Courtney Lawes and Farrell, Jones will have enough heavy-duty ammunition to take on all-comers. “Defensively we made a couple of errors but that’s something we can work on and fix,” said the coach. “It wasn’t a perfect game but it was very positive.”
England’s bid to take a fresh guard this year, it seems, has even extended to their dress sense. Prior to kick-off it appeared Australia had secretly entered the tournament, with the visitors confusingly clad in gold and green for their warm-up. The RFU insist it was neither a wry nod towards their coach’s nationality nor a long-range dig at Michael Cheika but simply a pre-existing design they are required, for now, to wear for away games by their kit sponsors.
Italy were virtually unrecognisable from the side who almost outfoxed England at Twickenham 12 months ago. They boasted just three survivors from that starting XV, with almost half the side making their Six Nations debuts, and their relative unfamiliarity was swiftly exposed. If Watson’s first try inside three minutes was the simple product of quick hands and the well-executed arrival of Jonny May into the line, the Bath man’s second was largely down to defensive confusion. Tommaso Boni at outside centre was glaringly stood up by the pacy May and, as Jones put it later, Watson “got the Masarati out of the car-park‚“ once he received the ball 35 metres out.
Ford, though, could land neither angled conversion and Youngs’s sad exit on a motorised cart seemed to distract England momentarily. Boni made good ground down the left and, with the red rose defence backpedalling, Tommaso Allan’s accurate long pass gave the powerful Benvenuti enough space on the outside to leave May stranded. Allan’s conversion cut the deficit to a mere three points and offered up at least a glimmer of hope.
It was to prove illusory, as it always does in this fixture. More clever approach work from the alert Ford put Farrell through another sizeable gap to restore England’s 10-point cushion and, despite a gallant home surge late in the half which yielded a further Allan penalty, the second 40 minutes were never likely to be a rhapsody in blue.
The red-booted Simmonds burst unstoppably off the side of a maul, showing the serious pace that made him a highly effective sevens player earlier in his career, and England had their bonus point. Mattia Bellini’s 58th-minute try in the left corner did not matter a huge amount in the great scheme of things, Farrell returning Ford’s earlier favour to put his midfield partner over for his sixth try at this level before the visitors really cut loose and the Exeter contingent lent the scoreboard a lopsided look.
The final margin was scant reward for, among others, the long-serving Alessandro Zanni, making his 100th Test appearance two years and three operations after winning his 99th cap, and his captain Sergio Parisse. It may be the remarkable Parisse’s greatness only becomes fully apparent once the shaven-headed warrior finally retires, even if he ends up as the first player in history to feature in a century of Test defeats. In some sports that would make him a serial loser; in rugby terms, given the ceaseless adversity he has to contend with, it makes him an all-time colossus.