England 18-11 Italy, Six Nations
A narrow escape
Graham Jenkins at Twickenham
March 10, 2013
England's Chris Robshaw walks off the field at the full-time whistle in no mood to celebrate © PA Photos
The relief at the final whistle was palpable. England's Grand Slam dream is intact - but only just.
Six Nations Permutations
It was not supposed to be like this. There was not a hint of doubt on the stiff breeze blowing around south west London ahead of kick off with England's 100% record against Italy and the Azzurri's propensity for getting a pasting at Twickenham convincing many that this was a mere stepping stone to the title-decider against Wales in Cardiff next weekend. A powerful England scrum in the opening moments of the game only fuelled that belief but their failure to make that early dominance pay and a worrying lack of accuracy and composure ensured a tense and nerve-shredding afternoon and that same icy wind carried boos around the stadium at the final whistle.
A bullish England attacked the task in hand with the kind of vim and vigour you would expect from a side riding three straight Championship victories that have brought tries and points aplenty but it did not take much to fracture their confidence. Fly-half Toby Flood, handed the No.10 jersey with the in-form Owen Farrell sidelined through injury, began brightly in a bid to remind coach Stuart Lancaster he has at least two world-class playmakers at his disposal. He was helped no end by his forwards who hammered away almost expecting Italy to crumble as they have done on so many previous occasions but they are made of much sterner stuff these days. And with each England raid that was repelled the Italians grew in confidence to the point their belief was almost bursting out of them in the closing moments. England recovered just about enough defensive steel to keep the history-hunting Italians at bay and they can now focus fully on the Cardiff finale instead of casting one eye at it as they seemed to do for much of this game.
England's lack of precision will be a major cause for concern Lancaster in the coming days. The cool heads that have served them so well in recent weeks deserted them and their confidence was fractured yet further with each butchered opportunity. Flood and fullback Alex Goode ran into each other in one painful sequence deep inside the Italy 22 and a sloppy forward pass from winger Chris Ashton brought an abrupt halt to another promising move. Time and time again they were guilty of over-thinking when a simple take-and-give and some straight running would have sufficed and produced the score that would have surely broken Italy's resolve. England simply cannot afford to be so wasteful if they are intent on ruling the rugby world. Italy may not have the arsenal to make them pay but Wales certainly do and will also not be so generous in the first place.
Italy were not found wanting for a touch of class with fly-half Luciano Orquera expertly picking out winger Luke McLean for the only try of the game but they don't come any classier than Sergio Parisse. The No.8 is a towering presence on a rugby field, when not abusing referees, and he offered just the latest reminder of his talents with a typical all-action display. He was a significant thorn in England's side throughout the game whether he was carving holes in the England defence, burrowing for the ball at the breakdown or putting the fear of God up Goode as he waited for the ball to drop out of the grey skies that had engulfed HQ.
His dance down the touchline with his equally fleet-footed back-row colleague Alessandro Zanni was a rare highlight on an otherwise dull weekend of Six Nations rugby. England were left flailing as the dynamic duo powered into the 22 only for referee George Clancy to rob them of possession and momentum by incorrectly calling a knock on. Not even assistant Nigel Owens could set him straight in what was a major let off for England and a body blow to Italy. Had Clancy not chosen to follow the lead of his fellow whistle-blowers Craig Joubert and Steve Walsh and needlessly demand the spotlight then Italy may have been celebrating a famous victory this evening.
Nevertheless, Italy's ascent from Six Nations whipping boys to genuine title contenders is surely almost complete. Victory over France in their opening game served as a warning that after a decade or so of making up the numbers, Italy are more than a match for any side in the Six Nations on their day with this latest showing also a ringing endorsement of the work being done by coach Jacques Brunel who, true to his word, has taken his charges to another level.
Consistency must now be their goal and Lancaster will no doubt be more than happy to tell his rival that it is an on-going battle. England failed miserably to maintain the level of performance that has served them so well since despatching the All Blacks in December but a lacklustre showing such as this may be just what they need to sharpen their focus ahead of a game that will go a long way to defining Lancaster and his charges. But rest assured that a Wales side that has built up an impressive head of steam since emerging from the mire will lost little sleep this week on the back of England's performance. They have no reason to fear their title rivals and in fact have good reason to relish the chance to derail England's bid for a clean sweep in the knowledge that a narrow victory will see them successfully defend their Six Nations crown.
Italy celebrate Luke McLean's score © Getty Images
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Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.