Both teams were riding high heading into this weekend's clash, with a historic win boosting Italian Rugby hopes and an absolute pumping against Scotland propelling England back into their favourites slot. Notable inclusions of the likes of Sarah Hunter will definitely hit headlines due to the continued great form of Cleal and the unusual choice to bench her in favour of the England stalwart. Despite the huge Italian win against Ireland last weekend, England were placed as 1/1000 favourites heading into this match. What happened when the two sides went to war?
Bold, Blue Start
England fans must have felt pretty uneasy watching the first quarter of this game. 65% possession, 375+ metres made and a clear territory dominance had Italy looking incredibly dangerous. Fantastic lines being run by Italian strike runners against the fringes, really targeted England's weak breakdown defence. When England did get their hands on the ball, their attacks were often snuffed out by intelligent defensive coordination by the Italian centres; Scarratt was isolated on a couple of occasions and was forced to make some uncharacteristic errors. The most impressive takeaway from this opening period, is Italy's dominance in the contact area. The majority of the collisions we saw, Italy sent English players packing. If they can take this snub nosed, brutality into other games in the competition, they will be sure to keep upsetting the super powers that be.
What England did do marvellously well in the opening period, was capitalise on silly Italian errors. Their first two tries came from missed passes and dropped balls around the half way line; to lapses in concentration later, England were up 14 - 0, massively against the grain. However, not everything went England's way, with missed opportunities mounting in the first part of the Second Half. Although a match like this might not be considered a tournament decider, it can be errors like these that can lead to poor placement come the end of the competition; with France and England both pushing for that tope spot, if no Grand Slam is on the table, could wasted opportunities cost the Red Roses?
We called it last week and unfortunately England's discipline is still somewhat lacklustre. With a couple of yellow cards last weekend and another this weekend, Englands penalty count is seriously mounting up. Admittedly, some penalties were a little harsh and the breakdown interpretation did feel a little inconsistent at times, but the amount of careless penalties England gave away when on the front foot, would have pained the coaching staff to witness. Italy weren't perfect by any means, with clear issues at the scrum which they will need to improve on ahead of their next game.
Where England won this match, a bit like how they did last week, was their reliance on excellent fundamentals. Fantastic scrummaging, great maul defence, clear, crisp and expansive passing, and an ambition to play Rugby in the right areas of the pitch. Although she had a bit of a whiff off of her left peg in the first half, Rowlands put in a masterclass of game management, kicking England deep into enemy territory whenever the opportunity reared its head. This also extended to England's fantastic defence, which largely came from gutsy hits, whether they won the collision or not. Italy made ground sure, but they never cut through. England doubled up fantastically well in the tight and stopped Italy's fluid offloading on multiple occasions.
England On The Counter
We mentioned it briefly before, but England's counter attacking capabilities are next level. They have gas, skill and power littered throughout the backline and it only took a phase or two to get them flying. Abigail Dow is a proven finisher and she looked particularly effective when given the opportunity in this game, taking her first try really well despite it not being much of a 'wingers game'. She then exploded through tired shoulders to complete another excellent solo effort later on. England were brutally efficient in the second half, and once they depleted their bench, they absolutely destroyed this Italian side...
A Tale of Two Halves
England went from struggling, erratic defenders, to 70's Barbarian level attackers in the space of a 15 minute break. England were unstoppable in the second half, putting away try after try with outstanding offloads, cracking support lines and flair to boot. As mentioned, England's substitutes really did make a massive difference in this game and against tiring legs, they ran riot. As impressive as their back line was, the majority of the players stemmed from fantastically skillful plays in the forwards. If its running Rugby you want to see, flick on a Red Roses game each weekend and you'll be full of it in no time.
Shaunagh Brown - An easy pick for our Player of the Match for me, despite Megan also deserving her official plaudits, putting in some great hits, making some important metres with ball in hand and mopping up effectively around the fringes.
Sarah Hunter - Despite Cleal's continued good form, Hunter's presence around the pitch is crucial to how this side can turn a games momentum. She proved herself particularly effective at stopping storming mauls by some savvy swimming through the middle.
Emily Scarratt - She had a really tough first half, with dropped balls, missed tackles and a silly yellow card. However, her second half performance proved why she's one of the best to put on the white and red. Great footwork, awesome offloads and intelligent targeting of tired legs.
Helena Rowland - A fantastic performance by Rowland and she really proved that she is an all round baller! Great defence, great kicking, took her try expertly well and she steadied England's ship during a difficult first half.
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