England win the battle but lose the war
March 15, 2014
Mike Brown has been superb for England © Getty Images
It is a sign of how far this England team have come that they looked disappointed at the full-time whistle having just put 52 points on another side in the Six Nations. There were more tries on that field for England, the 49 points difference between Ireland and Stuart Lancaster's team at the start of the day looked insurmountable but had they taken more advantage of some opportunities, they would have reached it.
How England will lament that dodgy first five minutes and lack of concentration in the last stages of their opening round game against France in Paris. That team selection saw England blood some inexperienced faces, they now have a whole Six Nations under their belt.
It's a building process for Lancaster with one eye on the 2015 World Cup but tonight they will experience mixed emotions. This was a winnable competition for England and while that may hurt until this wonderful competition rolls around again in 11 months time, there have been plenty of positives for Lancaster's team.
Against Italy, England's standout player of the tournament, Mike Brown, continued to show the class at which he is operating. Italy had no answer to his two jinking runs that ended with tries and he picked up his third Man of the Match award from the five games in the championship. Chris Robshaw operated with a quiet authority while Owen Farrell continued to kick perfectly from the tee.
Seven tries in total for England but there were opportunities left out on the Rome turf. England attempted to use the width of the pitch in the opening exchanges but miss passes saw momentum sapped rather than aided. When England went direct and through the middle, using the bulldozing skills of Luther Burrell, they created opportunity.
One of the major things for this England side during the championship has been the development of a two-sided attack. Having two playmakers on the field in the guise of Owen Farrell and Billy Twelvetrees has helped this but sometimes there is no substitute for raw aggression.
Lancaster's decision to bring Manu Tuilagi on for Burrell raised eyebrows at the time as the latter was causing Italy all sorts of difficulties. That England can replace one impressive centre with another is a sign of the development this team has gone through. On this occasion the substitutions saw England lose some of their flow in a similar fashion to that opening match in Paris. Questions regarding that aspect of the game management have bookended this championship.
The game was a scrappy affair with knock-ons offering a welcome break for the players in the energy-sapping Rome heat. Italy offered little in attack with Leonardo Sarto's - one of their standout players in this campaign - try coming on a plate thanks to an intercepted pass. They showed signs of development in the tournament but the record of six losses from six is a contrast to last year's fourth-placed finish.
Italy will be licking their wounds tonight; their shortfalls were brutally exposed by England. England too will be lamenting previous lapses of concentration.
England will now turn their collective attention to the summer's tour of New Zealand. There is no harder place to go than to face the Kiwis on their own turf. This new-look England have showed promise and a cutting edge in the tournament but a real test of their credentials awaits in June.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.