Growing pains: They can really hurt. And adopting a new approach will inevitably lead to ugly moments. Italy’s second try at the Stadio Olimpico, a flowing counter-attack that left Elliot Daly behind and finished by Tommaso Allan, was equally England’s epitome.
Despite the appointment of a new head coach in Gonzalo Quesada, who has promised to add pragmatism to the flow cultivated by his predecessor Kieran Crowley, the hosts were the more established team. The fact that they were chasing their first ever victory in this match did not change that.
Apart from the absence of several experienced players, the arrival of Felix Jones as defense coach, taking over from Kevin Sinfield, has been the most important aspect of England’s transition since the World Cup. He was a back-to-back champion with the Springboks and would always incorporate an aggressive blitz system based on wings rushing in to close down space. Jamie George and Ben Earl have waxed lyrical about the way Jones demands energy and insists England arm their defence.
South Africa has almost perfected this approach in recent years, making it formidable. The running duo of Kurt-Lee Arendse and Cheslin Kolbe are fascinating to watch with ball in hand, but they are also ferocious defenders who stop at nothing to run far upfield. They don’t mind the line of defense becoming narrow, as their proactivity will often lead to uncertainty or outright handling errors. Sometimes they also lead runners into heavy traffic.
Arendse and Kolbe trust that their colleagues can crawl behind them and provide cover when the attackers work the ball into space on the outside. England are not yet at this stage and Daly was the trap player in the 27th minute as Italy surrounded their hosts to take the lead 17-8.
The series had actually started promisingly for England on the other wing. Tommy Freeman had gone after Alex Mitchell’s boxing kick and clattered Monty Ioane. This should have allowed England to rally and swarm. Instead, they sidestepped the slump. Two phases later, Italy cut them apart.
Paolo Garbisi spied a defensive line curled up dangerously – Daly was the only English player on the other half of the pitch, if you were to draw a line vertically down the middle – and fed Juan Ignacio Brex. Brex fixed Henry Slade and lifted a deft return pass to a running Garbisi. Even beyond Italy’s 10-yard line, England were terribly vulnerable.
At that point, Daly tried to force the ball and intervened. But he was a little too late and Garbisi was able to pass the ball to Allan. The former Harlequins full-back slid just far enough to sign Freddie Steward before releasing Tommaso Menoncello. The only English defenders behind Daly in the corner were Joe Marler and Ethan Roots. Neither was able to catch up. Allan strolled under the posts after Menoncello had taken out George Ford.
What could England have done differently? Perhaps on this occasion Daly could have recognized how compromised his team had become and gone backwards rather than firing in the opposite direction. No defensive doctrine is sacred at any time.
England could have panicked here, because Italy had the tail on their tail. As it was, an increasingly confident defense would only concede seven more points, which came when Ioane escaped the clutches of Fraser Dingwall for a consolation try in the 85th minute. Dingwall will have been frustrated as the mistake tarnished an otherwise polished debut. Still, he and Jones emerged with a win and also with areas that could be improved.
Italy was indeed an ideal opponent to stress test the new system. If Ange Capuozzo was roaming around, they would have been even more threatening. Nevertheless, England produced enough to encourage Jones. In the 50th minute, from a scrum just inside Italy’s half, Paolo Garbisi wrapped himself around Brex again. On this occasion Slade intervened and Daly followed him to cut down Ioane. Any attacking drive was immediately lost and Earl’s pressure forced a Manuel Zuliani fumble. Cameras panned to the England coaching box. Steve Borthwick leaned over and said something to Jones – Felix, not Eddie, although the latter was also on the ground – and the pair nodded.
Freeman was impressive in every facet of his performance and seems to like Jones’ method. Other defensive interventions showed admirable industry. Maro Itoje had threatening moments. With ten minutes to go and England leading 27-17, Brex and Garbisi combined again. Chandler Cunningham-South charged across the field and hit Federico Mori. The resourceful, rugged Roots enforced a bad luck penalty a few tracks later.
Immanuel Feyi-Waboso came off the bench to quickly give England a lineout. Italy spread the ball wide from their own 22, Garbisi having to rush under pressure from Slade. The ball initially passed through Feyi-Waboso to Ioane, who evaded the first tackle attempt. However, Feyi-Waboso recovered. He and Dingwall led Ioane over the touchline. Earl was there to celebrate.
Steward deserves credit for anticipating a sweet chip from Garbisi on the first play after Daly’s yellow card. If that had ended up in a blue shirt, the Borthwick team would have faced a difficult final.
Italy would have the final say, but England would need to be encouraged. They won the opening round of the Six Nations for the first time since 2019. And growing pains often yield much more convincing performances later.
As Jamie George put it: perseverance in the response. “What pleased me most today was that we were eliminated a few times in the first half. But did that take anything away from our line speed? Absolutely not,” said the skipper. “We had the courage to keep going after them.”