England stumble to unconvincing win - and Grand Slam chance
England 18-11 Italy
ENGLAND will face Wales in Cardiff next Saturday with the opportunity of winning their first RBS 6 Nations Grand Slam in a decade after stuttering to victory over Italy.
For that alone head coach Stuart Lancaster will be relieved but England will have to improve vastly on this error-strewn performance if they are to create a slice of history and wrestle the trophy away from Welsh hands.
England could have effectively wrapped it up today, had they put Italy to the sword in the manner of all previous encounters at Twickenham but in the end they were clinging on for the win.
Lancaster's men will head across the Severn Bridge with a points-difference cushion of just 14. There will be all to play for at the Millennium Stadium.
Toby Flood kicked England to victory with six penalties, overtaking Jonathan Webb as the third highest points scorer, but he kept his side out of jail.
This was England's worst performance of the championship, devoid of composure and accuracy. They blew three golden try-scoring opportunities and ended the game on their knees, defending for their lives.
The fact there was not a spark of celebration on the field, and ripples of boos off it summed up how poor England were in the face of an Azzurri side who grew in belief and confidence off the back of red rose mistakes.
Italy scored the only try of the game through Luke McLean and they could have led had Luciano Orquera not missed the conversion and a subsequent penalty.
Flood's metronomic boot saved England's bacon but it is Wales who are licking their lips. No longer are they just hoping to ruin England's Grand Slam party, they have a title to retain.
Lancaster had demanded a performance of more than just character and England played with a pace and variety in the first 15 minutes that had Italy under real pressure.
Mako Vunipola got underneath Martin Castrogiovanni at the first scrum and a huge England drive allowed Flood to kick his side into a second minute lead.
Mike Brown came agonisingly close to his first Test try when he charged down an attempted clearance from Giovanbattista Venditti but the ball skipped dead just before the England wing could chase it down.
England were winning quick ball, Flood was standing flat and passing across defenders' noses, the forwards were offloading well and Italy were on the ropes.
Flood extended England's lead with a second penalty after Italy had been penalised once again at the breakdown but the Azzurri succeeded in digging their heels in and slowing the tempo.
Sergio Parisse, inevitably, was at the heart of the Italian resistance, which began with a successful penalty from fly-half Luciano Orquera after England had pulled down a driving maul.
Parisse then slipped a delicious one-handed pass to his back row colleague Alessandro Zanni, who charged between Brown and Geoff Parling and to within 10 metres of the try-line.
Brown recovered to get a hand to Zanni's pass but referee George Clancy ruled it as a knock-on, despite his assistant, Nigel Owens, advising him otherwise.
Italy then conceded a free kick at the scrum. Parisse, who was only available after having his ban for abusing a referee reduced, must have been biting his tongue.
England came back at Italy and should have been out of sight by the interval but they blew three golden try-scoring opportunities through poor handling or poor decision-making.
Chris Ashton was just snagged by the Italian lock Joshua Furno as he darted for the line but Andy Goode ignored a four-man overlap and offloaded to Flood, who was engulfed in defenders and held up over the line. Wasteful.
Italy lost Castrogiovanni to injury and then, on the half hour, Edoardo Gori to the sin-bin for tackling Flood off the ball. England could not capitalise.
Parling snatched a turnover and England spread the ball wide from Danny Care to Manu Tuilagi and then Ashton, who streaked down the right wing but his passed in-field went forward and to an Italian. Sloppy.
England's scrum was superior and the pack drew another penalty, which Flood converted, but out wide they lacked accuracy, with Goode butchered another chance with a pass over Tuilagi's head. Inaccurate.
Flood kicked penalties either side of half-time to edge England into a 15-3 lead but they continued to make mistakes. Italy fed off them and grew in confidence.
The Azzurri scrum was revitalised after the interval and they earned a penalty, which Orquera kicked, before scoring the first try of the match through McLean.
Zanni rose to claim Care's sliced his box and Orquera picked out McLean on the left wing with an inch-perfect cross kick. The Azzurri had come storming back with eight points in a minute.
Orquera missed the conversion from wide on the left and then failed to land a penalty. Had he been successful with both, Italy would have led.
Flood continued his faultless performance with the boot and England's defence held firm in the face of some fevered Italian attack to keep their title and Grand Slam ambitions alive.
But another performance like this and Lancaster's men will end the championship empty handed.