Saturday 20 January 2018

Lancaster's chariot creaking as Grand Slam date with destiny looms

England 18 Italy 11 Mick Cleary

England's clapped-out chariot, more Robin Reliant than Rolls Royce, lurches towards Cardiff. A Grand Slam is still in England's sights but there is little pomp or majesty in their bearing.

This was England's worst performance of the championship. They were fretful and uncertain, hanging on grimly at the end as Italy came hard at them to try and salvage a historic draw. Few in a muted crowd would have denied them the merit of that.

Italy scored the only try of a fractured game, England had to rely again on the boot of their fly-half. This was England's smallest ever margin of victory over Italy at Twickenham and, for the first time in 19 encounters between the sides, they failed to score a try. Sighs of relief greeted the final whistle. They will not be quaking across the Severn Bridge. Wales start as favourites.

Of course, England still have a shot at glory on Saturday, a marginal edge in the race for the title itself (Wales have to win by eight points to make absolutely sure), and with the clean sweep still a possibility. They have not fluked their way to this point. There is credit in the bank.

This flawed win was part self-aberration, part-Italian defiance. Perhaps now that England can shed their Basil Fawlty 'Don't mention the war' posture and embrace the Grand Slam, they might feel more liberated.

There is no such thing as an undeserved Grand Slam. Some are claimed with a swagger; others with a nod towards good fortune. Once again with England it was their character and resolve that got them across the line, their bloody-minded determination not to give way in those edgy final moments.

England looked in the early exchanges as if they might canter to the victory that the bookmakers felt was an inevitability in making the home side 100/1 on to win.

A Mike Brown charge-down almost yielded dividends, a Chris Ashton pop-up run came close to breaching the line.

There seemed to be no undue sense of concern at that stage. England were going through the gears and Italy appeared to be on their uppers, all the more so when scrum-half Edoardo Gori was sent to the sin-bin for pulling back Toby Flood on the half-hour.

Yet still England could not find the killer touch.

They strained and probed but came up with little, Flood landing two more penalties in that period to see his side into a 12-3 lead at the interval.

In the 49th minute, Danny Care's clearance kick from a hastily-delivered line-out around the '22' was skewed horribly, ending up three metres behind the gain line.

Italy pounced and fly-half Luciano Orquera dabbed a delightful kick to the left where Luke McLean touched down. Suddenly, the gap was down to four points, Orquera's conversion going wide.

The first tremors of anxiety rippled round Twickenham. Surely not? Had the past six weeks all been a dream?

England turned to their replacements' bench. Tom Croft was to the fore, Ben Youngs brought some direction with his kicking while Lawes was productive.

Flood pushed his sixth penalty through the posts on the hour mark for an unblemished return but the contest was far from settled.

Somehow, England prevailed. This was their fifth win in succession, dating back to that day of triumph against the All Blacks. That sense of tumult has passed.

As Twickenham emptied last night the mood was more downbeat, more sober. And England might be all the better for that. They will have to earn their Grand Slam. A rare old tussle awaits. (©Daily Telegraph, London)

England – A Goode; C Ashton, M Tuilagi, B Barritt (B Twelvetrees 67), M Brown; T Flood, D Care (B Youngs 58); M Vunipola (J Marler 58), T Youngs (D Hartley 72), D Cole (D Wilson 76); J Launchbury, G Parling (C Lawes 46); J Haskell (T Croft 51), C Robshaw, T Wood.

Italy – A Masi; G Venditti, G Canale, G Garcia, L McLean (T Benvenuti 72); L Orquera, E Gori (T Botes 58); A De Marchi (A Lo Cicero 76), L Ghiraldini (D Giazzon 60), M Castrogiovanni (L Cittadini 29); Q Geldenhuys (A Pavanello 63), J Furno (F Minto 63); A Zanni, R Barbieri, S Parisse.

Ref – G Clancy (RFU)

Irish Independent

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