Italy 15-19 England, Six Nations
February 11, 2012
Italy look on powerless to prevent Owen Farrell knocking over another three points © Getty Images
England once again produced a brand of dogged enthusiasm and brute force to get across the finishing line, but question marks remain over whether this side has the maturity, nous and flair to see them through against Wales in a fortnight.
Stuart Lancaster's side were 12-6 down at half-time in the inclement conditions at the Stadio Olimpico but rallied in the second-half to run out 19-15 victors thanks largely to the boot of Owen Farrell.
The 20-year-old is fast becoming an integral part of the England side where he seamlessly slots in alongside Sarries team-mates Brad Barritt and Charlie Hodgson. He showed maturity beyond his tender years to come out of the game with a 100% kicking rate and it would take a brave man to exclude him from the starting XV to face Wales in a fortnight. And Hodgson is now England's top and sole try-scorer in this year's competition on two from two, from a pair of charge downs, while Barritt stabilises England's defence with his bullish attitude.
But over at Sandy Park on Saturday evening is a Leicester Tigers back line which includes both Toby Flood and Manu Tuilagi. Lancaster now faces the favourable conundrum of working out where to fit in the pair to his side - if at all. With much of England's credo this year surrounding the forging of partnerships and team unity, would including the pair at the expense of say Barritt and Hodgson be hypocritical after a winning start to the tournament?
Despite Hodgson's try-scoring record and Barritt's never-say-die attitude, Lancaster will be mindful of England's lack of execution in attack. While a comparison would be harsh with last year's encounter between the two nations, England ran in eight tries against Nick Mallett's side last year while on Saturday they rarely flirted with the Azzurri's try line. And added to Lancaster's thoughts concerning whether to include Flood against Wales, is the worrying drop in form of Ben Youngs. The scrum-half was superb last season for England both on their summer tour and in the Six Nations but has struggled to hit his straps this campaign.
But the game was decided by two substitutions. Italy's Tobias Botes failed to nail Italy's chances from the kicking tee while Lee Dickson transformed England's attack when he came on for Youngs. The Saints half-back immediately bossed the pack and established a good passage of discourse with hooker Dylan Hartley in and around the set-piece. Youngs, however, laboured in the first-half but has the natural talent to guide England home against the more stellar nations in this year's tournament. Flood's possible introduction against Wales in a fortnight may go some way to helping his Tigers' half-back rediscover his game changing ability.
One argument levelled at England so far in this campaign is their lack of go forward and attacking initiative. Two tries from two is not going to cause Wales any sleepless nights ahead of their clash at Twickenham and with England displaying a lack of key line breaks, Tuilagi may be the necessary catalyst to help unleash the likes of David Strettle and Chris Ashton who have seldom seen ball on the wings.
But while Lancaster may decide against shuffling his options in the backs, one swap that is becoming increasingly likely is the inclusion of No.8 Ben Morgan. The Scarlets youngster replaced Phil Dowson after 51 minutes and helped nullify the threat of the superb Sergio Parisse after the talismanic Italian dictated tempo at the breakdown in the first-half.
But alterations aside, Lancaster has a 100% record to stick on his CV. He has silenced the cauldron of Murrayfield and come away from a field in Rome that would be better suited to a toboggan victorious and still has the luxury of being able to call upon the naturally talented Courtney Lawes, Tuilagi and Flood if he so chooses.
Yes it's far from the finished article and England will have to step it up into a different and somewhat distant gear against Wales, but Lancaster's side have shown more character in the past two games than was illustrated in the whole of the infamous World Cup campaign.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.