England responded to Calcutta Cup heartbreak with a professional 31-14 win over Italy at Twickenham to earn Steve Borthwick his first win as head coach.
Scoring three tries in the first half to lead 19-0, Italy fought back in the second half with two of their own, but Henry Arundell’s score on his Twickenham debut sealed victory for England.
It was a match that felt very much like two sides still developing, meaning there was plenty to learn in London.
Five-star England beat Italy for first win of Borthwick era
Borthwick’s blueprint beginning to take shape
Steve Borthwick took Leicester Tigers from 11th in the Premiership to champions in just two seasons, and the size of his task with England is even greater, as he looks to close the gap to the likes of France and Ireland in just seven months before the 2023 Rugby World Cup.
Last week there were serious question asked when Scotland left with a comfortable victory, but this week, there could be no doubt about the plan that was in place from minute one.
England’s maul was totally dominant, with three of their five tries coming directly from the maul, and the other two coming as a result of the maul, something Tigers became known for under Borthwick.
Indeed, Tigers were simply one of the best when it comes to the set piece in general and had a pack that was rightly feared across the country.
England have a long way to go to try and achieve that reputation, but their set piece against Italy was in complete control, and they comfortably got the better of the Azzurri at scrum time, which gave them the platform to kick to the corner and score the bulk of their points.
Borthwick said: “There were some positive steps forward, some small steps forward, credit to the players for working really hard to make those improvements.
“But there is plenty more to improve on, I think we left some chances out there, our ruck speed could have been better and we conceded some opportunities late in the game which we will have a good look at – but I think we have taken some steps forward in these first few weeks.”
Willis could be the key to England’s back row
Last week, England struggled to slow Scotland down, allowing Ben White and Finn Russell to dictate the tempo which was a major contributing factor to their victory.
This week there was a key new introduction to England’s back row – Jack Willis, who replaced Ben Curry, and went on to have a simply sensational performance.
His try to open proceedings was a bonus through a meek Italy defence of the maul, but the Toulouse flanker was in formidable form in all other areas, especially in defence and at the breakdown.
In just 53 minutes on the field before he was replaced by Ben Earl, Willis managed to notch up 20 tackles, more than anyone on the pitch bar Lewis Ludlam, who played a full 80 minutes.
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His turnover was just a key part of what he does best, as one of the best out-and-out sevens in the Premiership for some time, before joining Toulouse, where he has also become a key figure.
Tom Curry will come back for England soon, but with Willis performing like this, could Borthwick opt for Curry and Willis to lineup together?
Player of the match Lawrence puts hand up
Much has been made of the composition of England’s midfield since Borthwick took over, something that never felt settled under Eddie Jones.
Last week he went for a midfield that would have been seen under the Australian, against Italy it was totally different, with only Owen Farrell retaining his spot, but moving from inside centre to fly-half.
Henry Slade came back and was a calming influence at outside centre, but comfortably the key to England’s performance was Ollie Lawrence, who got his opportunity from the start after coming on as a replacement against Scotland.
It was one to remember from Lawrence, and a performance that will have certainly caught the eye of Borthwick, no less so because he was named Guinness Six Nations Player of the Match.
Player of the Match Lawrence delighted after ‘surreal’ win over Italy
No England player made more metres than Lawrence’s 84, while only Ange Capuozzo broke more tackles than the Bath centre’s seven, showing just what threat he brings to England’s attack.
It felt like a coming-of-age performance for Lawrence, and it would be a shock if he is not starting in Cardiff in a fortnight.
“Steve [Borthwick] said to me I needed to get us on the front foot and that was my job today, to make sure I got us over that gain line and with quick ball so we could attack on the edges,” said Lawrence.
“Together we did really well today, I think we took a massive stride forwards after last week.”
Italy show character in second half
Much was made of Italy’s general improvement when they came within a score of beating reigning champions France last week, but at half-time this week they found themselves 19-0 down on the scoreboard.
England were beating them up front, and they had no answer to the driving maul, while their penalty count was also alarmingly high and captain Michele Lamaro was off the field after suffering a thigh injury.
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Last year, Italy would have crumbled and things could have got ugly. But on Sunday, they once again showed they are making great strides and outscored England 14-12 in the second-half.
On the way to Marco Riccioni’s try just three minutes after the break, every single player touched the ball at least once.
Alessandro Fusco scored a second to give Italy a glimmer of hope, but once again it was their poster boy Capuozzo who highlighted everything great about this Italy side, making an astonishing 127 metres and breaking a simply ridiculous 12 tackles.
The spirit is there for all to see, as is the cohesion in attack, highlighted by both tries. Now, they must front up in defence – in particular their maul defence.
Kieran Crowley said: “They were able to kick to the corner and get their driving maul going so it was as expected, we just did not handle that as well as we would have liked.
Could England’s replacements change Borthwick’s plans for Cardiff?
Henry Arundell does not need much to score, and he showed that once again at Twickenham, capping off the performance when cleverly finishing in the corner.
Perhaps, however, it was the break of Alex Mitchell to set him up that would have pleased Borthwick more, breaking from a ruck to slide Arundell in.
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Jack van Poortvliet and Ollie Hassell-Collins were by no means poor but, by the same token, they were not quite at the level seen in the Premiership for Tigers or London Irish respectively.
Mitchell and Arundell may not have had many moments of magic themselves, but that combination for the fifth try was certainly one that would have raised a few eyebrows among Borthwick and attack coach Nick Evans.
Both players have been in electric form for their clubs over the past 12 months and perhaps that is what England need to really get going in attack.
In Cardiff’s cauldron, he may opt to stick with combinations, and use the pair as replacements again, but there is certainly excitement around both Mitchell and Arundell – they just need the chance to prove it on the international stage.