England’s reshaping under Steve Borthwick continued on Sunday as they hosted Italy. The Azzurri were unfortunate to come away with just a losing bonus point against France last weekend and would surely have been targeting this match as a chance to finally beat the only Six Nations opponent who they have never defeated.
England came in with a new look to their midfield—Owen Farrell moving to 10 with Ollie Lawrence and Henry Slade at centre—and the new midfield almost paid dividends early on, as Edoardo Padovani and Tommaso Allan both had to cover grubbers into the Italian in-goal. However, a questionable breakdown penalty after 2 minutes allowed the hosts to kick to the corner, and the England maul spun to send Jack Willis over for the opening try. Italy were trying their hardest to compete, but were being officiated on a different level to the hosts, who benefitted by once again going to the corner, and a series of penalties led to Lorenzo Cannone being sent to the bin, with England soon taking advantage of the extra man as Ollie Chessum crashed over from a lovely disguised pass by Ellis Genge. And as the half reached the final 5 minutes, Padovani had to be aware as Farrell put a grubber in behind with Jamie George chasing. England thought they had the third try moments later, Max Malins’ deception and footwork putting him through the line and feeding the supporting Jack van Poortvliet, only for the play to be called back for an obstruction. However England had the penalty advantage and with the Italian pck still down to 7, they were unable to stop the maul sending Jamie George over, Farrell converting for a 9-0 halftime lead.
The second half started much more positively for the Azzurri, and after some clever offloading released Ange Capuozzo deep into the 22, Italy went through the phases before sending Marco Riccioni over for the try. However the English pack hit back and another kick to the corner saw Simone Ferrari—only just on for Riccioni—collapse the maul for a penalty try (giving England the bonus point) and a yellow card. Both sides continued to fight hard, but as the Italian replacements came on and they returned to 15 men, they began to look more dangerous than at any point in the game, and it soon resulted in a break for Juan Ignacio Brex, which Alessandro Fusco finished just a minute after entering the game. However the English hit back after being gifted a scrum penalty (a recurring theme of the match), they managed to work the space to send Henry Arundell over in the corner to secure a 31-14 victory, a first win of the Steve Borthwick era.
Steve Borthwick made a big call this week with the decision to change from a 10/12 playmaker axis to a more traditional midfield setup, but while it is early days, it looks to have had a marked effect already.
Though maybe not the out and out crash ball 12 that Dan Kelly (rumoured to have been the favourite for the 12 shirt ahead of the tournament before his injury), the selection of Ollie Lawrence at 12 gave England the physical impact that they had been missing in midfield, and this was then helping England to vary up the play more as it allowed the pack to take the ball forward already on the front foot, which in turn allowed the halfbacks to control the game. Meanwhile in defence, they looked much more secure while not having to cover for Smith.
While a second playmaker can be a big boon, it cannot come at the expense of front-foot ball, which this midfield provides in a way that last week’s did not, while Henry Slade’s experience as a 10 earlier in his career means that England are not fully without a second playmaker.
With only a handful of matches until the World Cup, don’t be shocked to see England stick with this formation and look to build off it over the coming weeks.
This was a disappointing game for Italy. Their stronger scrum was largely neutralised by some questionable refereeing interpretations from James Doleman, their maul defence had a nightmare against the England pack, while the midfield also struggled to get parity with the power.
Moreover, their ability to defend was severely impacted by England’s frequent kicking into the corners. While the kicks were generally well dealt with, especially by Edoardo Padovani, the need to cover the ball in behind meant that Italy were unable to fully commit their wings to the defensive line, which meant that the rest of the defence had to spread themselves out wider to cover the pitch, which weakened their ability to deal with Ollie Lawrence’s charges through midfield.
However, they kept at it and when they managed to get a foothold in the game, they caused England some real problems. While they will be disappointed, this is still a much better scoreline than they often leave Twickenham with, while they also saw a promising cameo off the bench from Jake Polledri as he returns from injury.
After last week’s heartbreak, this will feel disappointing. But that in itself should be a sign of just how well Italy are growing as a team. This World Cup may have come a little too early for them, but watch out for this team in the next cycle.
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