Four talking points after England’s narrowest-ever win over Italy


Steve Borthwick sure has his particular way with words. Save for the well-taken Elliot Daly try that saw the ball flash through numerous hands from one side of the Stadio Olimpico to the other, England were dull as dishwater trying to get across the gain line on Saturday.

Not that the head coach was perturbed. “Very pleased with the result and very pleased with the players,” he claimed at the start of his post-match media debrief, a 15-minute session that ended with this pearler: “I’m really pleased the players were ultimately 27-17 on 80 minutes, sat on the opposition goal line. We’re disappointed we conceded that last try but 27-17, this is a good result.”

Really? His chutzpah was difficult to digest given how this was an Italy, pulverized at the Rugby World Cup by New Zealand and France, coming up against that tournament’s bronze medal winners.

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Instead of a convincing win reflective of what occurred just four months ago at France 2023, England managed their lowest-ever winning margin versus the Azzurri – a desultory three points.

Travelling fans certainly didn’t skip away from the stadium impressed with what they had seen judging by the cross-section of opinions overheard by this writer on the packed bus journey back into the city sometime after.

Italy

England

“It would have been a laugh if England were beaten,” suggested one white-jersey-wearing fan, a comment definitely not in keeping with the coach’s belief that he and his team are somehow mending the disconnect that exists between players and those who fork out heavily to watch a team mired deep in unentertaining rugby.

England undoubtedly have the players but they just don’t have the game plan to illustrate their best as their ball movement persistently lacked penetration. Instead, the plucky Italy – who won the try count 3-2 – provided the razzamatazz that put smiles on people’s faces. Here are the RugbyPass takeaways from a taxing 27-24 England afternoon by the Tiber:

The daftest round-one stat
Here’s the daftest of daft round-one statistics; Fraser Dingwall and Joe McCarthy were left sharing the top spot in the championship’s missed tackle chart but the emotions couldn’t have been more contrasting about their five missed tackles each.

McCarthy blazed a trail when bagging the player of the match in Ireland’s sparkling demolition of the 14-man French in Marseille. Dingwall, though, had no such luck in Rome.

His misses were costly and while there was redemption for a time in the second half, his day ended with a thud, the rookie Test midfielder embarrassingly getting left splat on the ground as Monty Ioane careered over to clinch Italy’s losing bonus point.

Borthwick was never going to publicly hang his player at the post-game bunfight, alternatively surmising: “Fraser in the centres, when you have got a different combination – and this is one of the challenges of playing in the centre having never played with that 10 and that 13 before – I thought he did really well to help glue that combination together.”

He even added when commenting collectively on all five of the new caps in the 23: “Just chatting to them in the changing rooms, they are going to be wearing the England shirt for a long time.”

You wonder how true that boast ultimately will be, particularly with regards to Dingwall, who isn’t genetically gifted for the 12 role compared to the likes of Manu Tuilagi and was likely only picked due to the unavailability of Ollie Lawrence.

It was at the 2021 Summer Series when Eddie Jones, Borthwick’s predecessor, highlighted that the average length of an England Test career was a mere seven caps. Dingwall, on Saturday’s evidence, will have to defensively learn very quickly if he is to match that average.

The two-cap Ollie Hassell-Collins is an example of how newcomers can disappear as quickly as they appear on Borthwick’s watch. Dingwall’s saving grace will be that Saturday was England’s first run with the Felix Jones-style defensive system.

This reality has to be factored into the analysis of the new midfielder’s display. It would be cruel if he was immediately cut from selection having waited for so long to make a debut but, as it stands, Wales will be licking their chops at the prospect of exposing him next weekend if he does keep his spot.

The rocket that didn’t ignite
It’s curious that so much was said and written in the build-up that the England of 2024 would be Borthwick 2:0, that this was the real start of his tenure, not 2023 when he was suddenly thrust into the role in an emergency after Jones was sacked.

The consensus was that England would take off like a rocket now that the head coach had his feet under the table for 12 months; that no way could he fail to build on the feel-good factor of an unexpected bronze medal finish at the Rugby World Cup.

Now, a win over Wales next weekend to leave England in the rare position of being two from two in the championship would result in what unhappily unfolded in Rome being firmly left in the rearview mirror. As it stands just now, though, it’s best to ignore the headline that was ‘England usher in new era’ which was published on the tournament’s official website.

There were too few crumbs for comfort to genuinely take from the Stadio for ‘usher’ to genuinely be the case. Yes, Ethan Roots ultimately looked the part on his debut as the new Courtney Lawes, though he won’t want to be reminded about how hesitant he looked when England conceded their first try.

Chandler Cunningham-South, whom RugbyPass had great time for when covering his impressive run last summer at the U20s World Cup in South Africa, also packed a mighty punch in his maiden run off the bench, while the bulked-up Tommy Freeman played like a free man, someone not afraid to try things he would perhaps have got a rollicking for in the Jones era.

Borthwick was at pains post-game in stressing that this was a new team that needed to be given time and leeway to be allowed to make mistakes without fear. That’s fair enough. The thing we have an issue with is how slow out of the blocks England collectively were at the start compared to Italy, who were playing for the first time under new head coach Gonzalo Quesada.

Yes, the bulky Benetton representation in their team would have assisted the composure of the Italian approach, but that’s no excuse for England not starting strong.

It’s a repeated failing of theirs at the start of every recent Six Nations campaign and all the talk of a week in Girona being just the tonic to rid them of this repeated sluggishness was ultimately meaningless given the frustrating limits of their first-half performance.

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The black mark against Wigglesworth
George Ford wasn’t completely kick-focused in Rome as he did carry the ball to the line on a few occasions; if anything, it was Alex Mitchell who overplayed this kicking tactic. His multiple from-the-base-of-the-ruck punts were too predictable to catch out the Italians, especially those kicked from daft-looking conga rucks that had England players piled together in a long line.

It was all too pedestrian and yet, ultimately, it was this half-back duo that saved England’s bacon. Ford handled the scoreboard pressure of his team being behind by kicking his goals despite moans from the crowd. He calmly landed six from seven attempts for 17 points, while Mitchell scrambled neatly for the lead-taking try five minutes after an interval England had gone into trailing 14-17.

That score should have been the prompt for the visitors to cut loose but they didn’t and they instead finished with just two of the four tries needed for a bonus point. That’s a serious black mark for the Richard Wigglesworth way and the promise that the attack coach would be expanding the team’s arsenal in Borthwick year two.

Breaking the line with regularity was a repeated failing for England’s attackers and unless it’s solved, we could be in line for the depressing outcome of another Six Nations where there are more losses than wins. That would be disastrous for the supposed third-best team in the world.

The fast learning that isn’t so fast
A favourite line trotted out by Borthwick during the World Cup was that his players would learn fast. He uttered it again in Rome but you simply have to wonder about the rate of this alleged England learning.

Look at Ireland. They used the winter to fix their creaking World Cup lineout, striding past France by showcasing an upgraded set-piece that provided quality ball and produced two maul tries. England’s maul just doesn’t have that same type of precision.

Otherwise, why would Ford readily call for the tee and kick for the posts with penalties rather than putting his team deep in the 22? England’s pack need to rediscover a menace against the game’s lesser sides. Italy didn’t fear them, and neither did the likes of Samoa or Japan at the World Cup.

Maro Itoje, in particular, struggles to be at his best when the opposition isn’t the world’s best. We usually excuse him for giving away penalties as they are generally to do with breakdown chicanery and his ball-slowing infringements are a sign of his nuisance value there.

The two penalties he coughed up in Rome, though, were for offsides, the sort of infringements that are deflating. Tommasso Allen punished the first with three points on five minutes and we could have been in for a nerve-shredding finale had the Italian full-back not missed when he went for the posts with the second Itoje penalty on 59 minutes with the score reading 24-17.

Sam Underhill was another whose moments weren’t top-notch. The chopper is usually around the top of the tackle chart whenever he plays but he was credited with just five in Rome, a figure that was second lowest of the starting England pack and well behind his fellow back-rowers Roots on eight and Ben Earl on 10.

Was his role specifically changed for this match or was he simply off the pace? It wasn’t as if he lorded it on the other side of the ball to compensate, his 14 metres for five carriers easily eclipsed by Roots 36 metres from nine carries and Earl’s 42 metres from 16. Can we have the real Underhill back, please, the one who smashed up Argentina for fun in October?





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