As England know from the deflation of failing to win four in a row between 2020 and 2023, the opening game of a Six Nations campaign is invariably nasty. Often you have to peer beyond the score line to appreciate encouraging aspects of the performance. However, that process should feel much better after a win.
Steve Borthwick used the term ‘awkward’ to describe the exhibition in Rome, which was an apt reflection. A three-point win over Italy won’t scare anyone. And yet there was plenty to encourage England to welcome Wales to Twickenham. Here are five flickers of encouragement from Saturday.
0.49 Explore options beyond stairs
England started impeccably. Maro Itoje rose to secure Paolo Garbisi’s restart before Italy pulled down a nascent maul. George Ford was given space to touch and lined out 10 yards beyond half-way, and the visitors tried to settle in on Ethan Roots by making him the target of their first delivery. From there it got harder. Fraser Dingwall shot to the gain line and delivered a pass to Ben Earl, who was stopped abruptly.
Now, at the World Cup, no matter who played at fly-half, England would almost certainly have gone up in the air. Remember the data? Steve Borthwick’s side scored once in every two rucks during the tournament, and more often in games against Argentina and South Africa. On Saturday they tried to find width by going through the hands. On this first possession England probed to the right, through Ford, Henry Slade and Freddie Steward, and then came back to the left:
In the fifth phase, Federico Ruzza cut down Ollie Chessum and Lorenzo Cannone jumped in to force a penalty. Watch how isolated Chessum becomes, with Itoje having to deal with two back-to-back failures:
This was ultimately a backhanded comment, but at least represented greater ambition in the middle third of the field.
All in all, England scored 31 times on Saturday. However, they spent 98 rucks with the ball and won each of the rucks following Cannone’s jackal in the opening minute. That shows accuracy around the contact area, a domain of Andrew Strawbridge. Their speed of just over three rucks per kick suggests a different mentality and according to Stats Perform, England also defeated the most defenders (25) of any team in the first round of the Six Nations.
16.41 Undeniable urgency in the transition
The attacking revolution that inspired Saracens to the 2023 Premier League title was based on spying opportunities in their own half, through turnovers and when rivals expected them to win. With Italy leading 10-3, the hosts brought right wing Lorenzo Pani to the first receiver and tried to punch Cannone.
The latter fumbled and Elliot Daly darted from the backfield before making a pass towards Steward:
England crossed halfway and Earl gave Itoje a deft inside pass. Daly then moved in the opposite direction, with Roots lurking on the right flank, filling a wide role that he regularly takes on for Exeter Chiefs:
Daly collects a pullback from Ford and asks Pani to release Roots:
To rewind to the beginning of this move, Daly’s intention was striking and should now be catchy. Everyone needs to get on the same page as England’s aim is for their defence, their lineout and their contestable kicking game to create chances in transition.
18.38 Wandering wing causes overload from fourth set piece
According to World Rugby rules, a dead-ball area can be a maximum of 22 meters deep. The Stadio Olimpico pitch certainly looked close to that maximum and England capitalized. By kicking into that zone, they encouraged Italy to leave the goal line and establish goal-line clearances, which has become a solid enough backdrop for good teams to coordinate complex, rehearsed attacks. Consider how Hugo Keenan, the Irish full-back, sliced through France a year ago:
At the end of the opening quarter, Steward’s boot gave England such a platform. Garbisi’s dropout sailed long…
…and was caught by Ford, who launched Roots. Standing next to Ford at that moment was Tommy Freeman:
From his standard position on the right wing, Freeman swings into a third layer of attack:
Ford pulls the ball back to Slade, who plays a similar pass behind Earl to Steward. Freeman then cuts a sharp angle off his full-back’s shoulder to drive home the point:
Daly was present to receive a shipment:
The key is how Freeman reads that Juan Ignacio Brex has been fixed by Steward, and intervenes accordingly:
Clearly urged to stray from their own flanks towards the opposing 50-foot channels, all three English wings were prominent. Immanuel Feyi-Waboso wasted no time as he came off his wing as part of a lineout:
Borthwick called the moment particularly satisfying, with Feyi-Waboso pumping his legs into contact:
Even if a wandering wing doesn’t get a pass, they can be influential because they can’t be ignored by the defense. Ireland has set the standard here. Watch James Lowe send Jack Crowley through Tadhg Beirne to score in Marseille on Friday evening:
A reverse angle shows Lowe, nestled behind Beirne, sowing indecision in the mind of Jonathan Danty as Jamison Gibson-Park feeds Crowley:
Danty is unsure whether to guard Beirne’s flat threat or move further to pressure Lowe. Coincidentally, he gets stranded and Beirne storms past him:
Keep roaming and England’s wings will reward their team.
43.24 Mitchell uses a stretched defense
The push for width led to neat left play from Dingwall, who threw a few passes over the pressing Italian defenders, and Daly. In the build-up to Alex Mitchell’s try, the latter was lucky. Freeman’s quick lineout leads to a strong Steward carry:
But two phases later, Daly’s pass to Slade appeared to sail past the touchline:
On the other hand, fortune seems to favor the bold. It feels like more forward passes are released than called back.
What England’s approach did create was that it gave Mitchell room to mix things up with snipes. He shot and fired to Itoje in the first half and then scored after going past Tommaso Menoncello and bouncing after Tommaso Allan’s attempted tackle. Paul Williams, the referee, had an impeccable view and decided that Mitchelll had not been restrained:
In addition to respectable ruck speed statistics, what also showed England’s quest for fast ball was that several forwards, including Joe Marler and Sam Underhill, gave the ball away after a breakdown when Mitchell was overtaken.
77.11 Cunningham-South opens his pass
“Raw” is a recurring description of Chandler Cunningham-South by coaches who have worked with him. ‘Rare’ is equally applicable. The 20-year-old weighs 120kg (18st 13lb). He can also switch things up, as was underlined by his cover tackle on Federico Mori and a late attack down the touchline after Danny Care’s box kick.
Cunningham-South chases his club colleague’s strike…
…and picks up the ball as it is spilled by Menoncello before stretching his legs. Monty Ioane recovers and forces him out. Yet we have a glimpse of the momentum that convinced Borthwick to promote Cunningham-South to the bench above Tom Pearson and Ben Curry, precipitating a Test debut:
How much Cunningham-South will be involved for the rest of the championship is a fascinating question, as England don’t have many athletes like the Harlequins backrower.
Match footage from ITV Sport