ENGLAND eventually responded to the Eddie Jones mantra of putting a smile on the faces of their supporters thanks to a four-try second-half romp which secured the bonus-point victory over Italy and the Six Nations title.
However, despite Ben Youngs scoring two tries in producing a man of the match performance to crown his 100th international in an England shirt, there was a rustiness about this display against an inexperienced Italian side that cannot be entirely excused by the eight-month lockdown gap in this longest of Six Nations tournaments.
England have set the bar on the highest rung, with head coach Jones starting the season by talking about their ambition of “being the greatest team the world has ever seen”.
They were far from that lofty peak at the empty Stadio Olimpico, and the only smile on the faces of many of their fans at the interval would have been one of weary resignation.
Up to that point they had stuttered their way to a 10-5 lead, and with the amount of ball that they had kicked away the vision of the game articulated by the England attack coach Simon Amor in the build-up “for our team as a whole to be more instinctive and play very, very fast” seemed like a pipe-dream.
Thankfully, they put their forgettable opening half behind them, to produce a steady drum-roll of tries throughout the second-half, with Youngs adding to his try before the break by scoring his second one minute after the restart, and Jamie George, Tom Curry, and Henry Slade following his lead.
The Youngs kick-start came when his dummy from the base of a ruck was bought by the Italian sentry, Danilo Fischetti, and his sniping run saw him elude Braam Steyn and Matteo Minozzi to touch down, and with Owen Farrell converting for a 17-5 lead England had breathing space for the first time.
It was Youngs’ 16th try for England, and he was soon followed by George, who celebrated his 50th cap by tucking in at the back of a lineout drive, and with the Italian resistance fading and a 24-5 lead with half an hour remaining, the Championship challenge was back on track.
The all-important bonus point came 14 minutes from time after Jonny Hill, who had an impressive debut at lock, took a clean catch at the lineout.
From the drive George and Youngs combined, and when the centurion scrum-half set up a ruck, Curry duped the Italian scrum-half, Marcello Violi, before stealing down the blindside to score.
The last of England’s five-try tally came in the 71st minute when a neat grubber by captain Owen Farrell saw Ben Earl and Slade give chase before the replacement flanker popped the ball up for the Exeter centre to score his third try in three weekends, following on from his double-winning touchdowns for the Chiefs.
It put the seal on a match in which England had initially failed to take advantage of an ideal start, with Youngs opening the scoring against an Italian side once again sitting at the foot of the table, with zero match points.
It was initiated by a beautifully weighted Mako Vunipola pass, which saw Farrell slice through the Italian midfield before giving the supporting Youngs an inside pass for a clear run-in.
When Farrell converted for a 7-0 lead there were only four minutes on the clock, and the fast start brought early promise that England had the all-court game to secure the high-scoring bonus point victory they needed to claim the title.
However, England’s willingness to put their foot to the floor disappeared soon afterwards, when, after Steyn conceded a penalty for going off his feet at a ruck, Farrell opted to take the penalty to stretch England’s lead to 10-0.
The alternative would have been to go to the corner and add to their statement of intent with a further try, while also putting a big dent in Italian confidence.
Instead, the decision rebounded on England as a nervous Italian side turned the corner by feeding off an English error.
It started when Kyle Sinckler was unable to hold Anthony Watson’s pass to him from the base of a ruck, and no sooner had Carlo Canna swooped on the bobbling ball than his switch pass sent Jake Polledri storming down the left touchline.
Initially, it looked as if Gloucester’s Italian No.8 would struggle to hold off the covering attempts of Jamie George and Henry Slade, but Polledri proved he had enough power and pace to ride Slade’s tackle and score in the corner.
Although Paolo Garbisi, the Azzurri’s 20-year-old fly-half, was unable to add the extras from the touchline, a gust of wind had filled Italy’s sails at 10-5.
Soon afterwards they received further encouragement when Hill was yellow-carded for a high tackle which made glancing contact with Eduardo Padovani’s head as the winger fell after a good high-ball catch.
England’s reduction to 14 men saw the combative Italian forwards make headway, with Sebastien Negri and Marco Lazzaroni making their presence felt, and their lineout producing quality possession.
At this juncture England looked anything but a Championship-winning side, and they had another case of the wobbles when the Italians drove Steyn over from a lineout, but were unable to ground the ball.
However, when they eventually turned the tables by winning a lineout deep in the Italian 22, they were given a helping hand when Polledri was sin-binned for coming in at the side to collapse the maul.
Even so, the closing passages of play highlighted the rustiness of the Red Rose outfit, as Italy claimed a turnover penalty at the subsequent England line-out-drive and then, having cleared their lines, came within a whisker of scoring at the other end of the pitch.
The architect of the break that almost had England on the rack was Federico Mori, Italy’s replacement wing.
Having grabbed a loose lineout deflection in the tramline, Mori’s chip-and- chase saw him in a race with George Furbank to ground the ball.
They both failed to do so, but, fortunately for England, Jonny May was first to get his hand on the ball – even though he had to evade some of the Italian replacements, who were loitering in the in-goal area, to do so.
It meant that England held a tenuous lead going into the second-half, and the significant improvement after the break gave them just enough of a points difference to put the pressure on Ireland or France to produce something too extraordinary for either team to capture.
Italy: Minozzi 5.5, Padovani 5.5, Morisi 5, Canna 5.5, Bellini 4, Garbisi 5, Violi 4.5; Fischetti 4, Bigi 6 (capt), Zilocchi 4, Lazzaroni 6, Cannone 5, Negri 5.5, Steyn 6, Polledri 7
Replacements: Lucchesi 5 (Bigi, 61), Ferrari (Fischetti 4), Ceccarelli (Zilocchi 61), Sisi 4 (Cannone 61). Mbanda N/A (Negri 73), Palazzani 5 (Minozzi 47), Mori 6 (Padovani 22). Not used: Meyer
England: Furbank 6, Watson 6, Joseph 5, Slade 7, May 6, Farrell 7 (capt), Youngs 8.5; M Vunipola 7, George 7, Sinckler 6, Itoje 7.5, Hill 6.5, Curry 7, Underhill 6, B Vunipola 6.5
Replacements: Dunn N/A (Geoge 79), Genge 6 (Vunipola 59), Stuart 6 (Sinckler 63), Ewels 5.5 (Hill 68), Earl 6 (Underhill 54), Robson N/A (Youngs 73), Lawrence 5.5 (Joseph 68), Thorley 5.5 (Watson 54)