England iron out the kinks against Italy with sterner Six Nations tests to come

With a clunk and a splutter, England just about kicked back into gear. An emphatic answering of the critics their win against Italy may not have been, but these were some first tentative, wobbly steps in the right direction at least for Eddie Jones’ side after a surgical dismantling at the hands of Scotland.

Victory, in the end, was comprehensive enough over the Italians despite Monty Ioane’s opening try briefly throwing up the possibility of the greatest of all Six Nations shocks. Franco Smith’s visiting young charges brought intensity and adventure, and forced England to rise to meet them with a strong opening quarter. The hosts seldom found fluency on a cold afternoon, but it was enough against a side still unable to maintain genuine parity throughout 80 minutes in this competition.

There had been plenty of fuss about Jones’ team selection, and this performance of fits and starts did not fully vindicate the Australian’s decision to opt against experimentation with Italy the opposition. England escaped with the job done and more rust shaken out of the legs.

“It’s a step forward for us,” reflected Owen Farrell at full-time. “In terms of what we were after, in terms of intent, in terms of energy, in terms of how we attacked the game, I thought that was brilliant.

“It felt like we were back to ourselves. Obviously there was still stuff we could do better, but that doesn’t leave us in too bad a place going forward.”

The carrying and ball-playing abilities of returning props Kyle Sinckler and Mako Vunipola added options in attack, while Luke Cowan-Dickie was a standout, pushing his case for more regular starting opportunities with the sort of all-action performance that he produces regularly at hooker for Exeter.

Two superb tries by Anthony Watson (forced into the back row after Jack Willis’ horrible injury) and a spectacular score from a leaping Jonny May were evidence enough that England possess the ability out wide to cause havoc, both in the broken field and from stable attacking ball.

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Items of concern will be another disappointing showing from Ben Youngs – Dan Robson’s half-hour injection of invention and tempo was most welcome. Elliot Daly looks entirely out of sorts in defence and attack, and while the creative cogs at ten and twelve didn’t quite turn smoothly, with both George Ford and Farrell a little sloppy in their work, the latter in particular making costly errors.

More worrying still was the incident that will likely rob the desperately unfortunate Willis of any immediate playing future. A second serious knee injury of a short career seems likely for the back row after his leg twisted horribly, though England await confirmation of what is likely a grim prognosis. “We’re all concerned. He’ll be examined but obviously it didn’t look good and probably isn’t good,” Jones revealed.

It was not the sort of free-flowing showing to really quiet those decrying the Australian’s lack of imagination in selecting and constructing this side. Chances to experiment in the cut and thrust of Six Nations rugby come rarely, and however spritely and spunky this young Italian side proved, this was a missed opportunity: a start for a Robson or a Ben Earl might have made sense to add something different; a look at either potential debutant (Paolo Odogwu and Harry Randall) perhaps would have been prudent to integrate them further and potentially expand relatively narrow attacking horizons.

Of those left out, Ollie Lawrence can feel particularly hard done by. After it took 60 minutes for his first, and only, carry to come a week ago, the centre this week found himself dropped from the squad entirely.

“We are continually changing our views. We are always looking to maximise how the team can play,” Jones had explained ahead of the game. “You have a view in your head of how you would like to see the team but then maybe sometimes the players aren’t quite ready to play and you have to go back to a different idea.”

England’s head coach chooses his words carefully, and it is rare he throws a titbit out into the open without forethought or greater meaning. Do we thus infer that this was an admission that he does not perceive Lawrence as able to yet play a key role in his side? Jones had referred to Lawrence as a project, a player of grand potential though one largely untested in the heat of battle. One might surmise this was all the more reason to give him another opportunity to test himself this weekend.

This is not new ground for Jones. Teimana Harrison lasted 31 minutes against Australia in 2016; Nick Isiekwe five minutes more before he was similarly hooked in Johannesburg two years later. It is something of a cautionary tale for Lawrence that neither has managed to re-establish themselves in Jones’ squads since. Careful management will be required to ensure the best is yet to come for a player with plenty to offer.

Next on the itinerary for England is a trip to Cardiff. Wales clung on to secure a second win against Scotland, but have rarely been in true ascendancy even with a man’s advantage both last weekend and this. France gritted their teeth to further establish their place as Six Nations favourites in Dublin, but this tournament remains relatively open behind them.

Wayne Pivac’s side will lift their game for their encounter with England in two weeks, but they will confront a visiting side with many of the kinks Scotland discovered straightened out. Jones’ treatment of his raw youngsters can be questioned, but he could not, perhaps, afford to leave his likely starters for that crucial meeting with Wales undercooked.

For as much as they again failed to sizzle, Jones’ selection got the job done and can move on to the sterner tests and higher stakes to come with confidence somewhat restored. It was not the performance that supporters demanded, but England may have got what they needed against Italy.

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