England undone by fear of failure
February 14, 2009
England manager Martin Johnson does not look too impressed by his side's performance in Rome © Getty Images
England maintained their unbeaten start to this year's Six Nations with a lacklustre victory over Italy in Rome but the result failed to gloss over their many shortcomings.
It was a case of one step forward, two steps back after their opening Championship victory over Wales last weekend. The desire and clinical edge that England produced at Twickenham was sorely missing in Rome to be replaced by lethargy and an uninspired game plan. To be fair to the hosts, Italy made things difficult for England with a performance a world away from the dross they served up against Ireland last time out. As a result, England came perilously close to their first-ever defeat against Italy, just as they did on their last visit in 2008, but perhaps that would have been one dramatic turn to many on rollercoaster of a Championship weekend.
Martin Johnson's men began brightly with pace and power and could have stolen a march on their hosts in the first minute had it not been for some desperate defence. But instead of building on that promising opening they were drawn into a narrow, forward battle punctuated by the dreaded aimless kick-fest that we have thankfully seen precious little of in the Championship until this point.
England far too readily slipped into the moribund state that had plagued their autumn aspirations. And that all-too-worrying tendency was even more infuriating as it was punctuated by some exciting attacking flair. The visitors appeared shackled by a tactic of only playing rugby in the Italians' half and there is some logic in that on paper but when it translates to an almost robotic response from the players then you have a problem - and England clearly do.
With an abundance of talent in their backline you are left crying out for them to tap into that well and give the players the license to play with their heads up - as France did against the Irish in Paris on Saturday night. The skill level is surely not a concern - the players must just be granted freedom to express themselves. If the talent was not there to execute such a tactic you could perhaps understand England's reluctance but unlike Italy, they are not working within such constraints.
England centre Riki Flutey offered a reminder of his game-breaking class but too often he appeared to be the only one to have read the script with support slow in coming as if his line breaks were unexpected. Flutey even appeared to be on a different page to his centre partner Mathew Tait at times, who despite crossing for the only try of the game, was worryingly happy to kick the ball away rather than take the attack to his opponents. There is no doubt he is a talented ball runner so why does he not back himself to do some damage? The back three of Ugo Monye, Mark Cueto and Delon Armitage also offered only glimpses of their exciting best. They are partly at fault for their bit-part status, attacking as they do as indivudals and not a unit, but you fear that they may also be suffering at the hands of the game plan.
Fly-half Jonny Wilkinson may have breached the 500 Championship points barrier with his 12-point haul but it was another forgettable performance from England's No.10 that included three uncharacteristic misses. Part of Wilkinson's problem is that he has set the bar so high over the last injury-plagued decade. His goal-kicking has been priceless weapon for England but there remain doubts about his ability to boss proceedings at the heart of this new-look England. I am not sure Wilkinson was ever the creative force many are expecting him to be in this current set-up - dynamic and all-action yes, but not a virtuoso. To lay the blame for England's maladies entirely at his feet would be wrong but somehow you sense that even if he was given an artistic license it would not lead to an all-new Wilko.
Perhaps the most distressing sign of England's shortcomings was their inability to punish the hosts when prop Martin Castrogiovanni was yellow-carded midway through the second-half. Even then, with an extra man, England did not have the wherewithal to conjure a game-defining passage of play. Where was the side that made Wales pay so dear for Alun-Wyn Jones' trip just eight days ago? Italy were the only side to trouble the scoreboard in Castrogiovanni's absence - a sad indictment on this England side.
Italy appear to be a different side at home and the work coach Nick Mallett did to reinvigorate his side in the past week must be applauded. Lacking direction and inspiration in Dublin, the same players produced an infinitely better performance against England, evidently drawing strength from their vociferous supporters. Suddenly there was invention where there had previously been a creative void and the forward power base, so often the backbone of Italian rugby, was also back with Alessandro Zanni claiming the man of the match honour. The Treviso No.8 may not be the all-round player that Sergio Parisse is, but he at least matched his injured skipper's dedication and work-rate. Defensively they were also praise-worthy but they were not stretched by some largely unimaginative work from England.
Despite his side's failure to conjure what would have been a sensational upset, Mallett will take great pride in his side's performance and will be relishing the visit of an injury-ravaged Scotland in two week's time - a fixture the beleaguered Scots will be dreading in equal measure.
After the completion of the second round of matches, England and France are the only unbeaten sides left in the Championship but they could not have reached those marks in more different styles. France are the form side and appear to be getting better whereas their cross-Channel rivals have the victories but appear to be going backwards. If England are to remain on course for a Championship showdown with France on the final weekend then they need to rediscover their clinical best - and fast - with Ireland on their way in a fortnight's time.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum.
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