Six Nations 2005
Too little too late for England
March 12, 2005
Mark Cueto dives in to score one of his hat-trick of tries
© Getty Images
England broke their RBS 6 Nations points duck by smashing fellow wooden spoon contenders Italy at Twickenham - but it was a chronic case of after the Lord Mayor´s Show.
The horse had already bolted in terms of England´s opening three championship defeats against Wales, France and Ireland.
And although the world champions produced some attractive rugby on occasions - notably through recalled full-back Iain Balshaw and try hat-trick star Mark Cueto - there was an inevitably muted air at English rugby headquarters.
England outscored the Azzurri 6-1 on tries - wing Cueto (3), Balshaw, hooker Steve Thompson and substitute flanker Andy Hazell touching down - yet fly-half Charlie Hodgson had another miserable goalkicking experience, landing just three from seven attempts.
Sale Sharks speedster Cueto has now scored seven tries in seven Tests, arguably proving the shining light of Robinson´s reign.
Veteran scrum-half Alessandro Troncon scored a try for the visitors, converted by full-back Gert Peens, but Italy are now resigned to finishing bottom of the championship unless they can cause a monumental upset by defeating title contenders France in Rome next Saturday.
England´s last game is a Calcutta Cup appointment with Scotland at Twickenham, and the autumn Tests against New Zealand, Australia and Samoa now cannot come soon enough for head coach Andy Robinson in terms of building towards the world champions´ 2007 Webb Ellis Trophy defence.
England were not seriously tested by Italy, who still have not won away from home in the Six Nations, and Robinson was able to use all seven of his substitutes, including awarding debuts to Leicester fly-half Andy Goode, who kicked the final conversion, and Bath prop Duncan Bell.
It was England´s 11th win from 11 starts against Italy, and staved off them equalling their worst run of championship results in one campaign since 1976.
Confidence levels, though, still appeared low, despite the promptings of a capacity 75,000 Twickenham crowd that did its utmost to lift a low-key occasion.
Balshaw, recalled for his first Test start in a year as replacement for an injured Jason Robinson, immediately got his hands on the ball, charging menacingly into Italian territory as England made a bright start.
The initial scrum produced a skirmish involving the front-rows, and England´s first lineout throw went the Italians´ way, allowing them to settle into a game that already had a muted air.
The Twickenham surface did not look its best either, and England needed to make an impression on the scoreboard.
Hodgson obliged, landing a seventh-minute penalty to put England 3-0 ahead, and more followed just two minutes later.
The menacing Balshaw broke from deep, capitalising on some woeful Italian tackling, and centre Jamie Noon acted as an effective link, sending Cueto galloping clear.
Hodgson added the conversion, and England were up and running, 10-0 in front as they left Italy with plenty of early problems.
It was all a far cry from England´s tense earlier battles in this season´s tournament, as Italy once again appeared horribly fragile on their Six Nations travels.
And 89 times-capped Troncon did not help their cause when he rifled a kick straight into touch from just inside his own half after Italy absorbed a spell of English pressure.
Italy offered nothing in attack during the opening quarter, and they suffered a 21st-minute injury blow when hooker Fabio Ongaro sustained a leg injury after being smashed in a legal Lewis Moody tackle.
Much of the action was scrappy and lacking in basic skills, and Hodgson missed a 40-metre chance five minutes before the break, then Peens booted the resulting drop-out straight into touch.
England needed no second invitation to extend their lead though, and after Olly Barkley and flanker Joe Worsley had made headway, quickly recycled possession saw Thompson power over for a try that Hodgson improved, making it 17-0 as half-time approached.
England pressed for another score before the break, going through 10 phases of possession before Cueto outstripped the Italian defensive cover to cross on the left wing.
Hodgson missed the touchline conversion, but England led 22-0 at the interval.
Italy made an interval switch, replacing flanker David Dal Maso with Silvio Orlandi, and it had the desired effect as the visiting forwards went up a gear to test England´s defence.
It proved a brave effort by the visitors, and their pressure was rewarded when Troncon darted through weak English defence for his 16th Test try.
Prop Graham Rowntree woefully missed a tackle on the Azzurri ace, who also eased past Worsley for a score that thrilled both Troncon and his coach John Kirwan.
Peens kicked the angled conversion, and Italy cut the deficit to 22-7, giving England food for thought as they looked to increase the tempo and give Robinson some encouragement heading into next week´s Scotland clash.
Robinson made his first change with 30 minutes left, replacing scrum-half Harry Ellis with World Cup veteran Matt Dawson in the hope that Dawson could inject some much-needed vigour.
England laid siege towards Italy´s line as the third quarter neared its conclusion, and the visitors´ problems intensified when they lost an injured Giorgio Intoppa.
Prop Martin Castrogiovanni replaced Intoppa, but it meant that South African referee Mark Lawrence ruled uncontested scrums before England struck with their fourth try.
England simply could not fail to prosper in an abundance of space, and Barkley fed his former Bath team-mate Balshaw, who galloped over for his 12th Test try.
Hodgson again missed the conversion - reducing his kicking success-rate to 50% - and England made another change, replacing lock Danny Grewcock with Steve Borthwick.
England, with the game won, maintained pressure and Cueto completed his hat-trick in the 64th minute by rounding off a crisp move in the corner that owed everything to Lewsey´s running angle.
Once more, Hodgson was wayward with his kicking, sparking boos from some areas of Twickenham, and Robinson continued to ring the changes, with Ollie Smith replacing Noon and Sale Sharks hooker Andy Titterrell taking over from Thompson.
It was now damage-limitation for Italy, and merely a question of how many further tries England would score during the closing minutes.
Hazell administered the final scoring touch during injury time, and England remain nowhere near the heights of their unforgettable World Cup triumph 16 months ago.