Two rounds into the 2022 Six Nations championship and still it is hard to know what to make of Eddie Jones’s “new England”.
Despite this comfortable-looking scoreline they remain a distinct work in progress and their remaining opponents will not, on this evidence, be overly intimidated. Rather than lighting up the Eternal City as their coach had invited them to do, this was more of a flickering Roman candle.
On the plus side a bonus point win ensures they can prepare for their meeting with Wales on Saturday week with much still to play for and their fly-half Marcus Smith continues to show why he has to be the heart of England’s future. But against an Italy side whose limitations against the game’s major nations remain obvious, there was a bloodless feel to the home side’s 34th successive Six Nations defeat and little in the way of gladiatorial satisfaction.
Was it asking too much to expect the same throbbing intensity and quality as the France v Ireland game on Saturday night? Of course but having led 26-0 with 35 minutes to play England should be disappointed that they did not finish the Italian job with the ruthlessness that tends to distinguish the top sides. Instead, after the departure of the quicksilver Harry Randall, the game died a slow, lingering death save for a late score for the visitors’ replacement prop Kyle Sinckler.
Five tries, including two for the industrious Jamie George, which was pretty much the minimum England would have wanted to score to put their Scottish disappointment behind them, particularly as Italy’s defensive organization out wide left a lot to be desired. At least they had Smith on hand to weave a little creative magic but 20 turnovers conceded against spirited but outgunned opponents snuffed out any real rhythm.
At least Ben Youngs, who came on to win his 114th cap and equal Jason Leonard’s England men’s appearance record, will remember this occasion with some affection but the yawning gaps in the stands, with local Covid regulations limiting the maximum attendance, and the frequent ho -hum nature of much of the contest made it comfortably the least compelling occasion of an otherwise cracking Six Nations weekend.
Thank heavens, then, for the weather, as gorgeous as much of the so-called contest was monochrome. It could have been a parallel universe compared to the previous week’s Murrayfield experience, with the rain and the wind replaced by a benign sunny Sunday afternoon ideal for a leisurely game of tennis at the Foro Italico next door. There were, in short, no excuses for England not to zip the ball around and play a little bit.
They did exactly that, but the early exchanges were so loose the game barely resembled a top-level test. It needed someone, speaking metaphorically, to put their foot on the ball and Smith swiftly emerged as the best man to do so. Holding the ball in two hands he expertly manipulated some defensive uncertainty down the Italian left and Max Malins slipped nicely around the outside before offloading back to his supporting fly-half.
All those with bets on England’s starting wingers to lead a subsequent try-scoring barrage, however, were to be confounded. England’s second and third tries went instead to George, the hooker showing good strength and persistence to barge his way over for the first, and then popping up wide on the right for a galloping score shortly before the interval initially sparked by a horribly loose pass by Italy’s scrum-helped Stephen Varney and, subsequently, a lovely long floated pass by Ellis Genge off his left hand.
Genge’s contribution was exactly the kind of moment that brightens the mood of all involved but, once again, that did not include the unfortunate Jack Nowell. The winger’s first England start for three years lasted 16 minutes, a failed HIA prematurely ending his afternoon after the Australian referee Damon Murphy and the medics had initially not seemed inclined to heed the ‘if in doubt sit them out’ protocol that is so vital for the protection of all players.
The substitution of Will Stuart at half-time for Sinckler also gave Italy’s pack a slightly different challenge to address, forcing the hosts to work hard for the scrum parity they had previously achieved. The Azzurri, though, were also having to battle a spiraling penalty count and a failure to capitalize on the chances they did create, with even a rash of visiting fumbles and knock-ons doing little to level up the contest on the scoreboard.
Italy also had little answer to Smith’s slick attacking execution, a beautiful flat miss pass allowing Elliot Daly to canter over down Italy’s exposed left flank once again. Sadly, apart from Sinckler’s little scoring cameo and Henry Slade’s narrow failure to add a sixth try in the closing seconds, that was pretty much the height of England’s second half performance. If it was good to see Leicester’s Ollie Chessum sprinting on for his senior debut, at no stage did England appear a side poised to cut loose and unleash hell.
The imminent return of Manu Tuilagi will clearly help in that regard and the 8-9-10 combo of Alex Dombrandt, Randall and Smith also showed some genuine promise. Overall, though, it was a curious day all round, the most bizarre fact being that both starting scrum-halves were fluent Welsh speakers. The Italian wing Monty Ioane is also planning to have a large gondola tattooed on his back next week but, from England’s perspective, the defining images of this Six Nations campaign still await.