Tait rises above dross
Limited Italy drag limp England into dogfight
AFTER the drama, the dross. The thrills and spills of a vivid Saturday in the championship turned into a turgid, stop-start afternoon at the Stadio Flaminio. It was halting, it was frustrating and it was a damn close call.
The Eternal City brought us the eternal match. It seemed to last a lifetime.
England did enough to hold on to their unbeaten record but it was a poor advert for rugby, Italy relying on their notoriously limited approach and the visitors lacking the drive, the thunder and the wit to shake them off.
This was their second narrowest margin of victory over Italy, only just eclipsing the four-point win two years ago. A couple of months later coach Brian Ashton found himself out of a job. Bleak as the scenario was yesterday afternoon, there is no danger of this empire being reduced to rubble.
The Romans will tell you that significant structures are not built in a day but England supporters who flocked to the city at great cost must yearn for a hurry-up in the construction process.
There was the occasional shimmy from the likes of Mathew Tait, Mark Cueto, Ugo Monye and Riki Flutey but nothing sustained.
The inclination was there but not the execution. Perhaps that is as good as it can get against Italy, but you fancy that the All Blacks would work their way through the morass.
England were jerky and jittery, unable to string together phases or deliver the telling pass, Tait's try shortly after half-time notwithstanding.
England did not even manage to take advantage of the second-half sin-binning of Italy prop Martin Castrogiovanni. Against Wales, England rattled up 17 points after Alun-Wyn Jones' trip. Here it was three points apiece.
England host Ireland in a fortnight's time and they will have to be sharper in attack, more polished at the set-piece and play with far more devil and bite all over the field if they are to resist an Irish side bristling from defeat in Paris.
True, England have won again and the accumulative effect of these victories will seep into their consciousness at some level. It was not pretty, nor impressive, but they are still hunting for major honours in the championship. That is not a bad place to be.
Jonny Wilkinson was uncharacteristically off-key when kicking for goal, fluffing two easy pots in particular. Another long-range effort fell short.
Those points are usually a given, and often settle nerves. Instead, England began to snatch at things. Wilkinson, though, did pop over a trademark drop goal with six minutes remaining after Italy had closed to within two points.
England knew that they would have to keep their patience in the face of Italy's relentless kicking game. William Webb Ellis would never have succeeded in this city. Picking up the ball and running with it seems to be an alien concept. Damage limitation is top of the agenda of coach Nick Mallett.
Anti-rugby? Well, it is a way of playing but it certainly does nothing to seduce hearts and minds. Italy do not have the resources of others but they are hard on the eye. They appeared content to have kept England to within five points.
The hosts did not make one single line-break and kicked 61pc of possession. England's percentage was at 54. Stats record that there was more kicking in this match than in any other championship game this season.
England looked reasonably bright and purposeful on the occasions when they did bring the ball back, but they did not trust themselves enough, fearful of getting turned over.
The visitors might have expected to generate momentum after the break given that they scored so early in the half. Monye wriggled free of Andrea Masi's tackle along the touchline to set England on their way to the try-line, Tait rounding off matters with a skip clear of the despairing lunge-tackle of Tito Tebaldi to touch down.
England, though, simply could not secure ball with any crispness. Their line-out, so staunch and unyielding against Wales, got a dose of the wobbles here. Two throws were not straight, two balls were flapped unhelpfully backwards and Italy stole one through their own good practice.
Nick Easter produced his usual gutsy, clever game but he was something of a lone figure of authority up-front. England never managed to clear out with any conviction or accuracy at the breakdown. Bodies were piled high, French referee Christophe Berdos failing to impose himself and punish the villains.
The portents were promising. The forecast rain kept off and Delon Armitage was only just denied within 40 seconds of the start. By the time he dabbed the ball into touch to bring an end to proceedings those hopes had long since been dashed, Mirco Bergamasco landing four penalties for Italy.
Victory was England's but there was no glory to be had. (©Daily Telegraph, London)
Italy --McLean; Masi (Robertson 55), Canale, Garcia, Mirco Bergamasco; Gower, Tebaldi (Canavosio 53); Perugini (Aguero 55), Ghiraldini (Ongaro 75), Castrogiovanni, Geldenhuys, Bortolami, Sole, Mauro Bergamasco, Zanni.
England -- D Armitage; Cueto, Tait, Flutey, Monye; Wilkinson, Care (Hodgson 75); Payne (Mullan 59), Hartley (Thompson 69), Cole (Wilson 64), Shaw (Deacon 64), Borthwick, Haskell, Moody (S Armitage 72), Easter.
Ref -- Christophe Berdos (France).