After England battled to victory over Italy last year, I wrote that there plenty of positives to take from the result. One year on, and Italy came close to embarrassing England at Twickenham. Fortunately, you don’t get points for style, otherwise England would be in trouble, but the most important thing about Sunday’s clash was that they won it. They didn’t win it well, you could argue they didn’t win it convincingly and they disappointed many of their fans, but they won it. That is the biggest positive they can take from the match.
Whereas bench strength proved a huge asset against France, here, starting with a weaker team didn’t quite have the desired effect. You could see that when Ben Youngs came on at scrum-half Toby Flood looked a different player, confident that the ball would get to him quicker than when Danny Care was on and therefore putting England on the front foot, for example.
Not that his fellow backs were able to take advantage. There were at least two gilt-edged chances that were awfully missed and while they might get away with it against Italy, who let’s not forget scored the only try of the game, they’ll have to play very well to be so profligate and still come away with the Grand Slam next week.
There is, however, a tendency to expect too much. Italy showed against England last year and against France earlier this year, that when they perform to their best, they are no longer pushovers and are now a match for anybody.
One day, they will beat England. I can’t predict when, or how, but it’s bound to happen. To take an example from another sport, cricket, Bangladesh were elevated to Full Member status in 2000, the same year Italy joined the Six Nations. Within 10 years, they had beaten all the other Full Member teams but not until 2010 did they first beat England in a full international. Then they did it again in the 2011 World Cup.
But back to the recent past at Twickenham. England had to dig deep, relying on Italian indiscipline and the steady boot of Flood to see off their committed opponents. This was an Italy side galvanised by the return of Sergio Parisse, and in the second half in particular, playing sensible rugby, valuing possession of the ball and not flinging the ball out of contact, which England were guilty of on occasion.
The tight game won’t have done England too much harm. I doubt there was any danger of the players getting swept along by anybody getting carried away with their recent run of wins, but this will have reinforced the fact that they still have a way to go to deserve being regarded as anything other than a very promising work in progress. That’s exactly what they should be at this stage in their development.
Two years out from the World Cup, they are winning games and showing an ability to play what is in front of them on the pitch. That was a hallmark of Sir Clive Woodward’s World Cup-winning side, but we may never see another England team as good as that. That Stuart Lancaster’s men are even being compared to them hints at the progress they are making.
But there is still a very long way indeed to go. Next stop, Cardiff.