England seize on mistakes for opening win
Graham Jenkins at Twickenham
February 7, 2009
England's Harry Ellis (left) and Andy Goode had plenty of reason to celebrate at Twickenham
© Getty Images
England made a winning start to their Six Nations campaign with an unconvincing 36-11 victory over Italy at Twickenham.
Scrum-half Harry Ellis produced a man of the match performance with two tries while fly-half Andy Goode celebrated his return to the international stage with a 16-point haul as England captialised on an error-ridden Italy performance.
England manager Martin Johnson watched his side bounce back from their disappointing autumn campaign with a five-try victory, with wing Mark Cueto and centre Riki Flutey also getting amongst the try scorers, but they failed to find the emphatic performance which would have silenced their critics. A lacklustre Italy only managed a consolation score from wing Mirco Bergamasco but battled throughout.
In contrast to the impressive Ellis, the visitors saw their enforced gamble to play Mauro Bergamasco at scrum-half backfire in an opening period that saw them leak three tries as the world-class flanker was found wanting when it comes to the demands of playing No.9.
The under-fire hosts made a dream start in bitterly cold conditions with Goode, in his first appearance in England colours since 2006, making an immediate statement of intent. The trouble began when Bergamasco was drawn into a physical confrontation at a ruck when perhaps he should have been more concerned about possession. Goode popped up at the back of the resulting lineout to snatch a wayward Italian throw before surging towards the line where he was held up. But the ball was recycled by Ellis and when the England No.10 got his hands on the ball again he showed great vision to chip through the rush defence before winning the race to touch the ball down with just two minutes on the clock.
The Brive No.10, making just his fourth start for England, was rightly delighted with his score and slotted the conversion for good measure. England looked hungry from the off and their aggressive defence soon brought more reward. The luck-less Gonzalo Canale, who suffered a nightmare Championship last year littered with crucial errors, spilled the ball in midfield and subsequent pressure saw Italy concede a penalty but Goode pushed his effort wide of the posts.
Bergamasco continued to offer cause for concern at scrum-half and his fly-half Andrea Marcato failed to open his side's account with a penalty on the quarter hour. England were soon pressing again with Cueto breaking the line with some great footwork before feeding fullback Delon Armitage - but he could only provide a hopeful pass to Noon and the chance was lost.
Goode failed to find his range with a penalty soon after and he would have been cursing the snow that has limited his practice this week as he watched his snatched effort drift wide.
However, the England pressure soon brought more reward with an excellent kick and chase from Cueto forcing a turnover before Ellis picked up the loose ball and scampered away up the touchline to dot down in the corner. Again his former Tigers team mate was off target with the conversion.
To their credit Italy continued to probe but were second best throughout the opening period. Lock Nick Kennedy exploited a gap to gallop up the shortside midway through the half but a good tackle from Masi brought him down. Italy had to wait until the half hour for their first notable attack when a good kick and chase from Masi had England re-treating but the move was soon snuffed out.
Another loose pass from Bergamasco had Gonzalo Garcia grabbing at midair and the loose ball was hacked on by Goode with Flutey winning the race to notch the try. This time Goode converted to make the score 19-0 and suddenly a 50-point-plus victory looked on the cards.
Italy were then dealt a blow with the loss of Marcato but his replacement Luke McLean was able to put his side on the board with a penalty that was immediately cancelled out by Goode. England handed an advantage to Italy before the break when a foolish James Haskell trip on Canale saw him rightly sent to the sin-bin.
Despite their domination the penalty count will have been of concern to England boss Johnson and a Steve Borthwick hand in the ruck gave McLean the chance to reduce the arrears which he duly took. Another infringement gave him one more chance before the break but his effort hit the post to leave England holding a 22-6 lead.
Bergamasco's scrum-half career was brought to a predictable end at half-time with Giulio Toniolati replacing him and Italy immediately looked a better side but they were still not a match for the England. The Azzurri flirted with an attacking game before England pounced again as first Goode and then Flutey made big gains in midfield to create an opening for Ellis who raced in for his second try. Goode added the extras to take England out to 29-6. Ellis made way for Ben Foden minutes later but can be assured that the No.9 shirt will remain his next week in Cardiff.
Alessandro Zanni had the travelling fans on their feet just passed the hour mark when he charged down a Delon Armitage clearance but he knocked on before replacement Matteo Pratichetti picked the ball up and skipped for what he hoped would be a score.
England were soon down to 14 men once again when Shane Geraghty was guilty of another sloppy penalty - taking Masi out in the air and Italy made the advantage count. After weathering a surging run from Armitage, Mclean made most of a tiring England defence to go close in the corner. The ball was recycled Kaine Robertson who went close in the opposite corner and looked to have run into a dead end before Mirco Bergamasco popped up to dive over for a try.
England finished with a flourish as another sweeping move saw Cueto rewarded for a strong performance with a try in the corner. Again we had to go to the TMO but there was no denying the resurgent Sale speedster his score. Goode set the seal on the victory and his own fine performance with the extras.
A morale-boosting victory will be a welcome relief to England ahead of their trip to Cardiff next weekend although there remain some concerns for Johnson over consistency and the dreaded penalty count. However, the headache for his Italian counterpart Nick Mallett would appear much more severe.
"We won in the end," said Johnson. "There is lots to improve on as a team but it is nice to be in a winning changing room. At this level if you give teams opportunities they will take them. The next place we go is Cardiff. It will be volatile and hostile and we need to improve. We were sometimes going off-plan and doing things we especially said not to do against this team. We didn't want guys picking and going around the edges against Italy because it is an area they defend best.
"When you are trying to execute it just takes one thing to throw it off. Mark's try was a good example of execution. If you do lots of little things well you can score a try. There are things we need to put right and it is easier doing that when you have come off a game, things are far more relevant."
Goode made an excellent start and gave England the kind of reliable direction which had been missing but his kicking was cause for concern. He missed two penalties, a conversion and a simple drop-goal while he often kicked straight down the throat of Italy's back three. Next week, Shane Williams or Lee Byrne will be waiting to pounce.
"He made a good start. I thought he did pretty well. You can point to lots of areas where things didn't go right but he gave us direction and maturity. Overall I think he did well," said Johnson.
Man of the Match Harry Ellis also targeted improvement before next weekend's trip to Wales. "Hopefully we can have a good week and look forward to Wales," he told BBC1 after the game. "We need to improve in every single area but it's always the same - the first game is a bit stuttery."
Italy coach Nick Mallett accepted responsibility for switching Bergamasco to cover an injury crisis at scrum-half, an experiment which back-fired horribly. Bergamasco was directly responsible for Flutey's try and he was replaced at the interval.
"I said before the game the responsibility was mine," said Mallett. "I thought of replacing him after 25 minutes but out of respect I left him on the field. No-one likes to concede tries but I would like to say that Mauro has the support of all the team."
Mallett decided to replace Bergamasco altogether rather than move him back to flanker. "After the first half Mauro was disappointed and I thought it was better for the team to keep the two flankers out there," he explained.
England: D Armitage; Sackey, Noon, Flutey, Cueto; Goode, Ellis; Sheridan, Mears, Vickery, Borthwick, Kennedy, Haskell, S Armitage, Easter.
Replacements: Hartley for Mears (55), Foden for Ellis (60), White for Sheridan (60), Geraghty for Flutey (60), Worsley for Armitage (62), Croft for Kennedy (73), Tait for Noon (73).
Sin-Bin: Haskell (34), Geraghty (63).
Italy: Masi; Robertson, Canale, Garcia, Mi Bergamasco; Marcato, Ma Bergamasco; Perugini, Ongaro, Castrogiovanni, Dellape, Bortolami, Sole, Zanni, Parisse.
Replacements: McLean for Marcato (29), Toniolatti for Ma Bergamasco (41), Pratichetti for Garcia (55), Reato for Bortolami (55), Festuccia for Ongaro (55), Nieto for Perugini (60), Montauriol for Dellape (76).
Man of the Match: Harry Ellis (England)
Ref: M Lawrence (South Africa).
Touch judges: Joel Jutge (France), Peter Allan (Scotland)
TMO: Nigel Whitehouse (Wales)