It's been a pretty filthy week for pundits, both professional and armchair - bound. You've got folks like Sir Clive who has written more hit pieces in the past 7 days than Trump received in the last 4 years... I wish that was an exaggeration. Sure, England were very poor and we all had our fun venting about stupid selection choices and a lack of passion. However, with each new game, there is a new challenge and Italy are a peculiar hurdle to jump. England needed a huge performance to re-energise fans burnt a concoction of anti-rugby philosophies... How did they do?
A Note for Willis
Although there were many talking points littered throughout the match, the most important thing for us to talk about is that horror Willis injury. After coming on and changing the game with his dynamism, Willis suffered a horrific injury from a crocodile roll in the midfield. For such a young guy to battle through such adversity to get his shot, to then see him struck down by another poorly executed roll is heartbreaking. For those who missed the game, the replay is so graphic, they couldn't show the audience after. From everyone here at Scrum Recap, we wish Willis a speedy recovery and hope its not as serious as it looked.
A Slow Start
Two years ago, if you were to ask me the most important factor behind England's winning spree, I would say it's their unbelievably frenetic start to each match. Teams couldn't cope with England's immediate physicality and match sharpness. You look at popular examples such as England's triumph over New Zealand at the World Cup and England's victory against Ireland in both the Six Nations and Autumn Nations Cup; all three matches showed precision, hunger and ambition in the first few minutes of the match. However, the English story has shifted almost entirely the other way, with the last year or so being a laboured England side that find their footing in the final 20 minutes. They've proven this in both losing and winning efforts against France, against Wales in the Autumn Nations Cup and even somewhat notably against Scotland this year. Ioane speeding past a dopey Daly on the outside shoulder and an out of position Watson summed up England's headspace entering the game. In fact, for the first twenty minutes, England looked second best at the breakdown and especially out wide; it looked like Italy had done their homework. However, as the game grew older, England used their bulk, experience and gas to score solo efforts that splintered Italian spirits. By the last quarter of the match, England looked in fluid motion and played some of their best Rugby in a year.
England's Back Three Conundrum
Going into this match, it's fair to say there were a lot of frustrations around England's selection choices out wide and the lack of a cohesive plan to utilise their dominant runners. In the first quarter, it looked like fans were very much right to criticise. Daly looked constantly out of position and threw some horribly ropey passes, Watson kept jutting off of his wing leaving it exposed for Italy to counter and May looked completely ineffective on the ball. However, as if a switch suddenly went off and the back three finally understood each others strengths, suddenly you saw England's 11, 14 and 15 tear it up around the pitch. Daly kept hot stepping his opposite number, creating space in the midfield and most importantly, on the slow Italian outside shoulder. Watson made a couple of great solo breaks from a standing start and deservedly scored two great tries; his defence also immediately improved as he held his width far more efficiently. May also came up trumps with one of the finishes of the year; although the legality of it certainly came into question. They spread throughout the pitch expertly and started popping up in places that you least expected; goodness gracious me, it sounds like I'm finally accusing England of being creative!
What To Do With Farrell...
At the moment, it feels like England supporters fall into two camps. Those that love Farrell and see him as a Fly Half deity that the rest of the side worships, and those that would like to see Farrell slowly fade away into the shadows of Championship Rugby. I feel like I'm one of the rare few that falls in between. Farrell is an immensely coachable, game plan extraordinaire; if you give him a job, he will religiously execute it. Although he's shown glimpses of flair and agility, he is far more recognised as a physical, territorial stand off. However, even being shifted back to a far better functioning, double pivoting, inside centre position did Farrell no favours whatsoever. I don't really see what he adds to this side that any other ball playing inside centre can't do. His tackling is still appalling and flimsy, his distribution is sluggish and inaccurate, his line speed is infrequent and sporadic, and his outside channel kicking has become predictable and easy to cover. He was made to look far better today due to Ford's creativity and ingenuity, and Slade's ability to hoover up shoddy passes and pop it out before he gets boshed. It really looked as if he wanted to send the Exeter man to the hospital... His place kicking has also become a real problem. Despite scoring a fair chunk of points, he's been unable to kick above 85% throughout the last year or so and even though he just about achieved that in this game, that's far from good enough at this level. Missing those first two kicks could have really hurt England in a bigger game; like it has done against the likes of France and South Africa previously. What I'm saying, is play Devoto, Ryan Mills (when he returns from injury) or Redpath (oops, too late) in that inside centre birth and you'll see how little Farrell adds in that double pivot in comparison to others. Maybe it's time for a benching to see how he responds?
The Tight Five
Much, much, much better. England were battered and bruised last weekend, and in all honesty, Fagerson and Sutherland bullied England at scrum time. Eddie chose to proactive in changing that misfiring scrum and boy did it work out in this game. Sinckler added his considerable bulk and dominated his opposite number time and time again. Mako, though a little slower around the park than usual, chewed up his opponent in the scrums and put in some awesome hits. However, the crown jewel has to be Luke Cowan Dickie. I love Jamie George, he's a classy operator who's solid in every faucet; he's one of England's consistent, outstanding performers... But LCD is a real specimen. When you think of the greatest Hookers in history, you default to Wood and Coles, LCD is like snub nosed, fire-cracker loving version of them. He loves the contact, but he's made to look even better because of the lines he cuts. He doesn't just pick a player to bounce off, he looks for arms and static hips; at some moments, I confused him with a certain missing inside centre. Outside of a few silly dropped balls, LCD gave England a huge platform and a ton of momentum to build on. Hill and Itoje also put in quietly solid performances, causing a nuisance at the breakdown and putting in some big, fringe collisions.
Where To Go For Italy
Now I don't agree with Mr Woodward a lot, as proven in the foreword to this recap, but his statements ahead of the game calling on Italy to stop using each Six Nations as a tune up game for the youth is becoming frightfully true. Every Six Nations we see small glimpses of Italian heart, passion and talent, and rightfully remark 'if they can build on this next year, they could cause some upsets'. What do we then see? A completely different squad, with a completely different system, likely a new bunch of coaches and a new philosophy. Are Italy playing an expansive style of Rugby, a territory-heavy, double pivoting, clinical style of Rugby, a dynamic, forward orientated, fitter brand of Rugby or a disruptive, inventive but abrasive style of Rugby? The sad truth is, after all this time, I still couldn't tell you. In better Italian teams of the past, Italy stuck to a forwards game littered with world class talents that could create moments of magic... Parisse, Castrogiovanni, Zanni, Ghiraldini, Bortolami, Bergamasco and more; that would then be paired with intelligent, passionate and gutsy backs such as Troncon, Griffin, Pez, McLean, Robertson, Masi and the other Bergamasco. This current side, full of youngsters who have broke ground at junior level, are not up to the task of taking apart any tier one side by using any personal strengths. Garbisi is an exciting talent, but is clearly nowhere near as savvy or collected as Allan, Trulla was anonymous all game again, falling way too short of filling Minozzi's and Haywards boots, Varney is a little naïve and far from test-ready and it's hard to believe that Brex plays where the likes of Campanaro and Bergamasco used to play. Not only is this Italian side the worst man for man it's ever been, it also has the least successful strategy of any Italian setup. I can guarantee in five years time, we will still be watching the Italian's turn up with a side full of under 25's with little to no top level experience try and turnover some of the most accomplished setups in Rugby history. There is talent there, talent that needs to be groomed and blooded intelligently; you can't just give players at 19, 20 and 21 full game after full game of annihilation and hope for them to improve. As they stare down the barrel of 30 Six Nations games without a win, the question remains, are they even worth keeping in the tournament?
Luke Cowan-Dickie - Although not highlighted for man of the match, England wouldn't have had as much front foot ball as they did without his barnstorming runs and immense physicality.
Dan Robson - Yeah, I'll go there! Robbo was thrown through the dirt after his cameo this weekend but hopefully his performance silenced a lot of the doubters. He changed the game when he came on and immediately gave England a far snappier platform. Head and shoulders above Youngs' fifty minutes.
Anthony Watson - After a horror showing in the first ten minutes, Watson went on to have one of his best games in an England shirt. Elusive, sharp and motivated, his two tries proved decisive in England switching gears.
George Ford - As SquidgeRugby pointed out, Ford is like a membrane that keeps a side ticking. He quietly put in a very assured and calm performance despite woeful service from his nine for the best part of an hour.
Kyle Sinckler - I don't think he had the MOTM performance the commentators did, but he certainly looked like a menace around the park and scrummaged well.
Stephen Varney - A couple of costly passes and errors around the fringes really hurt Italy at key stages.
Owen Farrell - Clumsy and unfocused, he cost England a lot of attacking opportunities and continued to kick absolutely aimlessly.
Ignacio Brex - Couldn't do much with the service he was given but he still contributed to pretty much nothing throughout the entire match. His channel also became a target for England's strike runners which is never a good sign.