England finished conclusive winners in the end but they survived an almighty scare at Twickenham yesterday, and afterwards their head coach, Eddie Jones, fiercely criticised Italy for the crafty tactics they deployed, which included a refusal to form rucks.
The Grand Slam champions trailed 10-5 at half-time. Italy’s approach of opting not to contest the breakdown had clearly proved unsettling and a succession of confused senior England players took it in turns to question referee Romain Poite over the ruse, Dylan Hartley making the first enquiry before Owen Farrell, James Haskell and Danny Care also sought answers.
Midway through the first half Haskell produced a comical reply from Poite when asking “how can we get them to form a ruck?”, to which the French official replied “I can’t say, I’m a referee, I’m not a coach”.
The discussions with Poite were a constant theme of a first period that ended with Italy wing Giovanbattista Venditti grabbing a penalty attempt that bounced off the left upright and touching down for a try to snatch a scarcely believable lead for underdogs.
“Congratulations to Italy. Strategically they were smart today, but it’s not rugby so let’s be serious about it,” said Jones at full-time. “I’m not happy what happened today, I don’t think that’s rugby.”
Seething with sarcasm, Jones added: “In football they say park the bus. I don’t know what they had, but it was bigger than a bus.
“Remember Trevor Chappell? Bowled under arm along the ground. Couldn’t hit the ball for six. We saw a Trevor Chappell game of rugby today. We still haven’t played a game. We haven’t played rugby yet.
“We lost the ruck from the game and when you lose a primary contest from the game it changes the game considerably and it ceases to become rugby.
“If you paid for your ticket, ask for your money back. I’ll have to give my money back to [RFU chief executive] Ian Ritchie, because no one’s had rugby yet.
“If that’s rugby, I’m going to retire. I don’t want to be involved in those sort of games.”
Plenty others disagreed with Jones, pictured, and believe Italy simply out-witted their opponents during that first half. The visitors’ head coach, Conor O’Shea, said: “We have to think differently, like we did today.
“We were playing absolutely legally. What we did today, we played to the laws.”
England, to their credit, responded well after the interval. In the space of three minutes they had powered 17-10 ahead through Care’s opportunist try that exploited a lack of concentration from Italy and Elliott Daly’s sharp finish after strong approach play from Haskell and Ben Te’o.
The floodgates appeared to be opening but Italy refused to wave the white flag. They soldiered on and when weak tackling from George Ford, Daly and Jamie George allowed Michele Campagnaro to plunder a 61st-minute try, a seismic upset was still possible.
England, though, found another gear when they needed to with Jack Nowell, Te’o and then Nowell again crossing as Italy’s tiring defensive line splintered, leaving Jones’ men with three wins from three in this season’s Six Nations Championship.
The triumph stretched England’s record run of victories to 17 ahead of the visit of Scotland in a couple of weeks’ time. If Jones’ men beat the Scots then they will match New Zealand’s record of 18 straight wins.
It was also a record-tying tenth straight Six Nations win, a feat achieved also by the English from 1882-86 and 1922-25.
In contrast, the Italians have now lost ten Six Nations games in a row. The build-up to the match was dominated by debate over whether their decline and the rise of Georgia – who are positioned higher in the world rankings – should see relegation introduced to the championship but, even in defeat, the Azzurri at least sounded a note of defiance at Twickenham yesterday.