A stuttering England performance gave Martin Johnson his first win in this year’s Six Nations campaign. On an icy cold afternoon at Twickenham, England were fortunate that former Oxford Blue, Nick Mallet, now the Italian coach, made arguably the worst decision in his coaching career to date. The attempted reinvention of a world class flanker, Mauro Bergamasco, to scrum half, contributed hugely in giving England their first half lead. A hat-trick of horrors from Bergamasco at 9, gave England a 19-0 lead after thirty minutes. In the first minute he joined in a ruck, forgetting his scrum half role. The subsequent lack of an Italian scrum half led to the ball being kicked ahead by England for a line-out, from which the opening try was taken over by Goode with barely 60 seconds gone. Goode is currently the top scorer in French rugby but, despite a positive start, he produced a less than effective performance at fly-half. His opening kick and early try briefly silenced his doubters; over the remaining 78 minutes he kicked poorly and lacked authority.
As the first half progressed England exploited Italian errors with Harry Ellis scoring in the seventeenth minute and Wasps’ Ricky Fluety following suit shortly after to record his first international try. The Fluety try came on the back of another dreadful Bergamasco mistake; a horrendous loose pass which sailed over the head of team-mate Garcia, allowing England to push on and score. After 30 minutes of rugby the writing was on the wall for Italy. Both teams exchanged penalties, with Mclean kicking well, and as half time approached the score was 22-3. James Haskell received a deserved yellow card for a mindless trip (when will he learn?) and Mclean sent another sailing between the uprights to bring the score to 22-6 at the interval.
The second half started positively and more fluently for Italy. With the substitution of Bergamasco for Toniolatti, an actual scrum half, the Italians demonstrated more structure and looked to attack, something not seen in the first half. With injuries hurting both sides, the number nine position was without a doubt the defining issue of the match for Italy. Following the game pundits described Bergamasco’s play as ‘the worst we have ever seen by a professional rugby player at international level’.
Mallet himself would have substituted him earlier had he not had such respect for the player with 69 caps, none unsurprisingly at scrum-half. Though Toniolatti holds just 2 caps to his name he played with more conviction and might have been able to pull Italy back into what could have been an even game. Whilst Italy were mired in their own selection dilemma, England’s scrum-half, Ellis, was demonstrating his pace, cantering over for his second try of the match. He was eventually handed the ‘RBS Man of the Match’ award, after a reasonable performance in an otherwise uninspiring contest.
Italy soon had a real chance of putting some points of their own on the board though, when Delon Armitage‘s ill-timed kick was charged down. Unfortunately for the Azurri, they were unable to control the bouncing ball, agonizingly knocking on. With increasingly limited service to the backs a new approach was needed. Martin Johnson used the 29-6 points cushion to experiment with substitutions by bringing Shane Geraghty and the uncapped Ben Foden into play.
The ill discipline of both sides, but particularly of England, marred play. After being on the pitch a mere three minutes Shane Geraghty made the same walk of shame that James Haskell had taken in the first half after a brainless and dangerous tackle. England need to cut out this kind of thoughtless play if they want to regain their status as one of the top sides. Italy, meanwhile, used the advantage of the extra man to put the English defence under real pressure for the first time during the game. It resulted in a try, bulldozed over the line by Mirco Bergamasco, brother of Mauro. At 29-11, England had the last say with the experienced Cueto dancing for the line; the try was converted and victory was England’s at 36-11.
This five try performance flattered an inexperienced England. With five defeats in their prior six tests it was essential for Martin Johnson’s side to get the victory- albeit in an unconvincing fashion. The lack of discipline was put down to ‘enthusiasm’ by Jonno, yet the giving away of penalties against a side such as Ireland, and against kickers like Ronan O’Gara, would be severely punished. The penalty count during the calamitous Autumn series hurt England badly and has clearly not been stamped out yet. Where does this performance leave England and Martin Johnson’s camp? Clutching at straws perhaps? The team has very little time to improve before Cardiff next weekend. Wales are no Italy, and this match will surely be a hugely tougher and more physical test against the Championship defenders. England supporters must hope that Tindall makes a swift recovery and that the team conduct affairs with more authority, control and discipline.
One of the key question marks over this England team is that of the all important number 10 shirt. Cipriani, in his current form, will surely not be thrown into the deep end against Wales-yet it is widely believed that Andy was unfortunately not Goode enough and never has been, ‘If Goode were an international player he’d have 50 caps to his name by now’ argued one senior ex England player.
The fly-half conundrum remains a mystery and will leave us guessing until the team announcements are made as to who is to face Wales. Ian Robertson, BBC radio commentator, said after the match that he believes Wales to be serious contenders to win back-to-back Grand Slams. The compelling Welsh win over a hearty Scotland at Murrayfield this weekend confirms this opinion. Despite falling asleep for the last twenty minutes, Wales won 13-26 with an outstanding performance from the Cardiff Blue, Jamie Roberts, who was awarded man of the match. The game of the weekend was Ireland against France- an exciting 30-21 win for the home-side against a spirited France. Brian O’Driscoll proved he still has what it takes, contributing a try to the great Irish performance. Sadly the quality of these two sides also augurs badly for England’s Six Nations hopes. France will also be out for revenge in the next few weeks.
After this weekend’s match, Matt Dawson was less than impressed at the standard of rugby on display at Twickenham. When asked his opinion of England’s performance he replied, ‘Rubbish, we are not going to threaten anyone playing like that’. The crowd seemed to agree; when the England players returned to the pitch to celebrate their victory they were met by a virtually empty stadium.
With the competition spanning from now until the end of term be sure to expect full JCR’s, as conflicting nations compete in what is undeniably one of the greatest competitions in rugby. However, for England supporters there remains the worry of an inexperienced manager leading an inexperienced team.