England exerted their power, strength and pace to ultimately claim a comfortable victory but this was no Sunday afternoon stroll in the park in Rome. The Italians were worthy opposition and competed well for over an hour but in the end England had just too much, as they ran in three late tries, to add some gloss to the scoreline.
The Italians have clearly benefited from having two sides in the European Champions Cup. Captain Sergio Parisse has always been a colossus on the international stage but now he has been joined by some high quality in the form of flankers Sebastian Negri and Maxime Mbanda, fly half Tommaso Allen, his restarts excepted, full back Matteo Minozzi and their two wingers, Tommaso Benvenuto and Mattia Bellini, who both finished with aplomb for their teams’ two tries.
England were always strong favourites and scored two early tries through Anthony Watson, after fine handing and interplay involving both George Ford and Owen Farrell, and whilst Farrell added another try before half time, the floodgates failed to open. It was only in the last 12 minutes that England pulled away with those late tries.
For England there were many positives. Mako Vunipola once again proved his class in both open play and in the tight, yet when he and Dan Cole left the arena, the two Exeter props Harry Williams and Alec Hepburn both made an impression. Their colleague, Sam Simmonds, packing down at number 8 had a dynamic match, with two tries and an assist for another Exeter man, Jack Nowell. What he lacks in bulk, when compared to the likes of Billy Vunipola and Nathan Hughes, he makes up for with his pace and speed off the mark and surely his future looks to be as an openside flanker if or when Vunipola or Hughes return.
In the backs, Ford and Farrell once again showed their calmness and experience, dictating play and creating pace for others, most notably for Watson’s early tries. However, England did show some fallibility in their defending out wide. This will need some consideration and attention before next week, with both Watson and Mike Brown lacking strength in the tackle on a couple of occasions. Brown was hauled off immediately following Italy’s second try which he might well have prevented and maybe the future lies with Watson in the full back position for his greater all round contribution.
England coach Eddie Jones has another big decision to make for next week as the back up to Danny Care in the scrum half position, following Ben Youngs’ unfortunate injury so early in the match. It will be interesting to see which direction he goes, with the Wasps flyer Dan Robson and the experienced Saracen, Richard Wigglesworth in pole position. However, knowing Jones’ propensity for the unexpected, he could so easily make a selection from leftfield. Scrum halves all around the land will be keeping their phones on in the next day or so.
For the moment though, Jones will reflect on a job well done in Rome. He will feel pleased with England’s ruthlessness, the composure and steady hand of his older guard plus the explosive nature of some of his young guns. However, this was far from the perfect performance and he will be taking nothing for granted with the rejuvenated Welsh visiting Twickenham next weekend. It could be some match.