England looked to get over their loss to Wales with a match at home against Italy on Saturday. The home team made just a handful of changes and their strength showed as they put the Italians to the sword, going in 31-7 ahead at half time courtesy of tries from Jamie George, Jonny May, Manu Tuilagi and Brad Shields. Tuilagi and Shields each added after the break and tries from George Kruis and Dan Robson completed a 57-14 victory.
Bish! Bash! Bosh!
England only made a couple of changes for this match, but they were notable ones as Ben Te’o came in for Henry Slade (with Tuilagi shifting out to 13) and Joe Cokanasiga came in on the wing. The England back line has generally been rather lightweight, but the trio of Te’o, Tuliagi and Cokanasiga had a greater combined weight than heavyweight boxers Anthony Joshua, Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder. A very different approach to usual from England and one that overwhelmed the Italian defence.
The massive midfield of Te’o and Tuilagi frequently forced the Italians to bunch in midfield to deal with them – not helped by the loss of Michele Campagnaro and his replacement Tommaso Castello to injury before half time, leaving Ian McKinley in the centre – and this created space out wide for Cokanasiga and the smaller, faster England backs to exploit. Cokanasiga was a monster in this game, dominating Angelo Esposito in attack and finishing with 107 metres off 8 carries. Even when he was eventually stopped, he always looked able to get his hands free for an offload to a supporting player.
Tuilagi had a great game and looked much more of a threat at 13 where he has that extra bit of space to exploit, running for 82 metres from 8 carries, behind only Cokanasiga for metres made. Te’o may not have been so obvious in attack, but the threat that he possessed played a big factor in creating the space for those outside him.
In defence, there was room for improvement as England’s narrow defensive tactic did lead to Tuilagi occasionally struggling to cover across and Cokanasiga making the wrong decision, but that is always the risk with a group that have not played together before.
Of course, it must be taken into account that Italy are not going to have been the hardest test of this line-up. While I think Henry Slade has done a great job in this tournament and has been a vital cog in defence, I would like to see England continue with this back line against Scotland (though again, the injuries in their squad mean that the resilience of the Scottish defence will likely be somewhat lacking) and develop it into another legitimate option with the World Cup looming.
Italy had their moments of success in attack, but not as many as they would have liked. Despite making 160 carries (40 more than England), they made only 373 metres compared to the home team’s 643.
While part of this can be attributed to losing such impressive players in midfield and also finishing with a prop in the back row, their attacks were often too easy for England to deal with. Italy had the ball 61% of the game, yet for all that possession they only made 5 clean breaks over the 80 minutes, compared to England’s 22.
Much of this can be attributed to their predictable attacking making it easy for a strong English defence. The Italians have a number of impressive ball carriers in the pack yet they are largely wasted by always taking the crash ball off the scrum half. There is no variation in the game, which makes is easy to defend. If they were to start crashing their ball carriers off 9, back inside from the 10, outside the 10 or even further out into the back line, then they would make so many more metre and generate quicker attacking ball to take advantage of a retreating defence.
Tito Tebaldi has looked impressive when given space to attack into, but I do not thing either he or Tommasso Allan have the ability to control a game and get the best out of the team in the same way as their opposite numbers. Alessandro Troncon and Diego Dominguez were such a big part of the Italian team of the ‘90s and early ‘00s and they have never been fully replaced. If Conor O’Shea can find the talent at 9 and 10, then it will not take much to unlock this team.
Scrums are not something that can often be considered fun to watch these days, but here was a very interesting moment at one of the set pieces in this game. With England set to have the feed around halfway on the right hand side of the pitch, Joe Cokanasiga packed down at number 8 while Billy Vunipola placed himself in the back line.
Putting a winger into the back row is not often going to work well – if you haven’t watched the clip of Jonny May at flanker against Argentina, then you’re missing out! – but Cokanasiga looked at home at the back of the scrum and with him being only slightly lighter than Billy Vunipola, there was no real drop in quality during the scrum. The ball came out to the back line, where Vunipola took the crash ball into the Italian midfield.
While I am not sold on Cokanasiga as the regular starter yet, I do like the willingness of the England attack to try something different when he is on the pitch. With Vunipola in the back line, it is understandable to expect him to take the crash ball here, but having done that on this occasion, I would not be surprised to see England take this a step further and use the tactic again in the future, but with Vunipola either as a decoy runner or even as a pivot, similar to what we see from Mako Vunipola at times in open play.