A 36-11 win to Martin Johnson’s troops halted a five-match test losing streak, but even such a score line spoke volumes of England’s woes as a “top ranked” rugby nation.
Naturally, the England supremo took the win, remarking “it was nice to be in a winning changing room.” But the 25-point margin masks a plethora of problems that should effectively ensure that the red rose of England will not challenge for this year’s title.
But for tactical ineptitude; the award unfortunately goes to Nick Mallet, the Azzuri coach and one of the finest men to coach the South Africans. His gamble at playing a 70 test match flanker, Mauro Bergamasco at scrumhalf was an absolute disaster.
To re-trek a rugby coaching maxim, a game where the ball is contested—the flanker position plays a pivotal role in challenging the ruck, influencing the tackle and defending the pillars. A scrumhalf plays the polar opposite responsibilities, to take the ball and feed efficient pill to his backline, as well as standing off the ruck defensively.
Bergamasco played with the appropriate confusion, and was directly responsible for at least two tries, and Italy’s backline, which has slowly evolved under Mallets tutelage, was never allowed to function as a Test attack should.
England made the dream start, with Brive standoff Andy Goode making an impressive early start engineering a try in the first two minutes.
However, despite showing the occasional control that the England game craves from their playmaking general, Goode wilted as the game wore on, and should have imposed himself more on an Italian team lacking direction. If it was a close game, his four missed kicks could have cost the English.
Goode’s performance was the poorer considering what a stellar performance Harry Ellis put in from the base of the scrum—winning man of the match—but even he should take blame for not strangling the life out of Italy when they were lost at sea.
Two more tries followed, the first, due to Bergamasco playing his natural flank instincts and contesting the ruck allowed a loose ball to be scored by Ellis. The third try was the coup de grace for the converted inside half, throwing a terrible pass which was hacked down field by Riki Flutey who scored to kill the game as a contest.
It was at this point that England should have scored a half century. But the remaining 50 minutes of the game were scored 16-11 in England’s favour as the Italians steadily improved as the match wore on, heavily due to Bergamascos halftime substitution with Giulio Toniolatti.
Considering the Azzuri’s lack of confidence due to their poor opening stanza, England had the opportunity to use the game as an 80 minutes match drill. But their lack of control and skill beyond second phase would mean that against the other Six Nations teams they will struggle, especially considering the quality of the football seen in the other nights match between Ireland and France.
The lack of poise was accentuated by James Haskell’s foot trip on Andrea Marcato. He was duly yellow carded, and the prima donna threw his hands up and shook his head like a blameless school boy. England’s willingness to earn yellow cards (six in their last two matches) surely must be Johnson’s biggest concern.
The set piece was a purist’s disaster. Italy was woeful controlling the ball from their own throw, losing half of their lineouts. Equally, England’s scrum was put under constant pressure, despite their flankers dominating the ruck.
Andrew Sheridon struggled against Martin Castrogiovani, and questions must be seriously asked about his suitability as a front line test prop.
Despite a misfiring scrum, England’s pack acquitted themselves well against a formidable Italian eight. The English backline was sound, but it is hard to judge considering how poorly their opposition operated at times.
Surely the lack of overall pizzazz and fluency in attack must have Johnson thinking about bringing back Danny Cipriani, who could not showcase his wares as the Saxons game against Ireland A was cancelled due to atrocious weather conditions.
Given the weakness of the Italian halves, it would have been an opportune moment for England to experiment with their attack and play the pinup London Wasp. The other home nations are far more lethal in their playmaking depth, and will present a severe litmus test for the English.
For Italy, much will come from Mallet’s failed Bergamasco switch, as he admitted after the match the experiment was a disaster. Their pack and back three quarters looked solid, but an inquisition will need to be thorough for their problems not only in the halves, but in the midfield where the two Gonzalo’s (Canale and Garcia) were shaky on defence and missing on attack.
Ironically, despite the heavy loss, Mallets problems are obvious and enough was shown to indicate that back at Stade Flaminio in Rome they will provide formidable challenge for the visiting Irish.
Johnson’s England is presented with a massive step up in class as they travel next week to take on the defending champions on the hallowed turf of Millennium stadium.
Tries:Goode, Ellis 2, Flutey, Cueto
Yellow cards:Haskell (37, tripping), Geraghty (64, dangerous tackle)
Cons: McLean 0/1
Pens:Marcato 0/1, McLean 2/4
(Half time: Eng 22- Ita 6)
England: 15 Delon Armitage, 14 Paul Sackey, 13 Mike Tindall, 12 Riki Flutey, 11 Mark Cueto, 10 Andy Goode, 9 Harry Ellis, 8 Nick Easter, 7 Steffon Armitage, 6 James Haskell, 5 Nick Kennedy, 4 Steve Borthwick (captain), 3 Phil Vickery, 2 Lee Mears, 1 Andrew Sheridan.
Italy: 15 Andrea Masi, 14 Kane Robertson, 13 Gonzalo Canale, 12 Gonzalo Garcia, 11 Mirco Bergamasco, 10 Andrea Marcato, 9 Mauro Beragamasco, 8 Sergio Parisse (captain), 7 Alessandro Zanni, 6 Josh Sole, 5 Marco Bortolami, 4 Santiago Dellapé, 3 Martin Castrogiovani, 2 Fabio Ongaro, 1 Salvatore Perugini.
Referee: Mark Lawrence (South Africa)