England got their Six Nations off to the anticipated winning start on Saturday, with a 36-11 win over an Italian side hamstrung by both injuries and backfiring tactical ploys.
England’s shape and structure was as robust as damp flint: often crumbly, threatening to be sharp but never dangerously so, and with very few bright sparks. What gave the score its imbalance was the sheer awfulness of Italy, exacerbated by the misery endured by Mauro Bergamasco in the number nine jersey.
Bergamasco was not just thrown into the deep end, he was culpable for all three of England’s first three tries, a number that could have been five if England had not been so rubbish. I won’t go on, for he’s a terrific player, but playing him at nine is a waste of his ability.
The first gave Andy Goode (wearing his Nike total 90 laser rugby boots) roughly four minutes of redemption, four minutes in which English fans dared to think that he might yet be able to transpose his undisguiseable talent onto the international stage. Goode took the ball three phases after Fabio Ongaro had overthrown his first line-out by a mile, grubbered through, sprinted on and scored, converting for good measure. Had Bergamasco been running a usual scrum-half defensive line, Goode would never have been near a try, but fair play for seeing the gap. Goode had an excellent first four minutes back; he spent the next 76 minutes lumbering some way below that benchmark.
The second try came because – not for the first time – Bergamasco had obeyed his rucking instincts and joined into the breakdown contest. the ball squirted out the side, and with no scrum-half there to mop it up, James Haskell (wearing his Adidas Rugby boots) nicked it and popped it up for Harry Ellis who stormed home.
The third was the coup de grace for Bergamasco’s scrum-half career, a long looping floating pass to his fly-half which found the gap between ten and twelve and was hacked ahead and dotted down by Riki Flutey. That – plus two Goode conversions – made the score 19-0 after half an hour and was the end of the game as a contest.
The other area of worry for Italy was the line-out, where Ongaro often seemed to be aiming for a jumper on the other side of the pitch, so far did he occasionally throw it. It would have been a problem in a close game.
Back to England, for they have much more to worry about. Considering Italy’s disarray, the white pack ought to have clambered in and set the bulldozers rolling. It should have been attacking practice. Instead, Italy won the last ten minutes of the first half 6-3 as England conceded penalty after penalty and kicked away possession after possession.
Typifying the disinterested arrogance was Haskell’s trip on Andrea Marcato and subsequent ludicrous pantomime display of petulant arm and head-shaking as he was admonished and yellow-carded for his sin. It was like watching an eight-year-old being denied his daily can of tartrazine, a playground bully being chastised by his own mother. Pathetic on every level, not the actions of a man who would seek to be a British and Irish Lion.
The second half was no less turgid than the first. Bergamasco was put out of his misery by the introduction of Giulio Toniolatti, whose debut was perfectly respectable and made you wonder why on earth he was not given a go in the first place.
Italy’s scrum kept up its good work, the defence tackled with its usual tenacity. England continued to kick heir way down into Italy’s half and then attempt to break the Italian line with unwieldy mallets rather than surgical scalpels.
Goode aded to a catalogue of first-half misses – two penalties and a conversion – with a skied drop goal on 50 minutes, which was all England could muster until Italy gave away a try by attacking. A terrific counter-attack led by Masi and continued by a sweeping move left where Mirco Bergamasco should have been given the ball to finish off, instead ended up being turned over in the middle by England’s defence. Ellis took it off the fringe and scampered home from 50m.
Goode and Ellis continued to kick away ball after ball despite England’s complete physical domination. Shane Geraghty, on for barely five minutes, was sin-binned for a mid-air tackle that even superseded Haskell’s trip for stupidity. Not one of the matchday 22 stood up and took control.
In the end, Italy finished stronger, snapping round the fringes well, the pack forging hard yards forward. Parisse’s cheeky pass nearly yielded a try for Alessandro Zanni, but for Zanni’s ball-in-hand blinkers, it could have been a try for someone else.
With ten minutes to go, Luke McLean – who was a much improved figure from the bedraggled young debutant in Cape Town last year – made a terrific break to the left corner but just didn’t have the gas to take Delon Armitage. Out the ball went right to Gonzalo Canale, then Kane Robertson, and finally to Mirco Bergamasco who got a try that he most likely dedicated to his misused brother.
Mark Cueto finished off a late score that added some undeserved brasso to the scoreline.
Tries: Goode, Ellis 2, Flutey, Cueto
Cons: Goode 2
Try: Mirco Bergamasco
Pens: McLean 2
Yellow cards: Haskell (37, tripping), Geraghty (64, dangerous tackle)
England: 15 Delon Armitage, 14 Paul Sackey, 13 Mike Tindall, 12 Riki Flutey, 11 Mark Cueto, 10 Andy Goode, 9 Harry Ellis, 8 Nick Easter, 7 Steffon Armitage, 6 James Haskell, 5 Nick Kennedy, 4 Steve Borthwick (captain), 3 Phil Vickery, 2 Lee Mears, 1 Andrew Sheridan.
Replacements: 16 Dylan Hartley, 17 Julian White, 18 Tom Croft, 19 Joe Worsley, 20 Ben Foden, 21 Shane Geraghty, 22 Mathew Tait.
Italy: 15 Andrea Masi, 14 Kane Robertson, 13 Gonzalo Canale, 12 Gonzalo Garcia, 11 Mirco Bergamasco, 10 Andrea Marcato, 9 Mauro Beragamasco, 8 Sergio Parisse (captain), 7 Alessandro Zanni, 6 Josh Sole, 5 Marco Bortolami, 4 Santiago Dellapé, 3 Martin Castrogiovani, 2 Fabio Ongaro, 1 Salvatore Perugini.
Replacements: 16 Carlo Festuccia, 17 Carlos Nieto, 18 Tommaso Reato, 19 Jean-Francois Montauriol, 20 Giulio Toniolatti, 21 Luke McLean, 22 Matteo Pratichetti.
Referee: Mark Lawrence (South Africa)