England are coming of age
Graham Jenkins at Twickenham
February 12, 2011
England's Chris Ashton celebrates his four-try haul against Italy at Twickenham © Getty Images
England raised the bar in this year's Six Nations with an eight-try demolition of Italy that should serve as a warning to not only their northern hemisphere rivals but those looming on the World Cup stage later in the year.
We were led to believe that this was going to be a brutal affair and it was - but no-one expected it to be so painfully one-sided. Italy brought their usual grunt up front but it was no match for what is now quite clearly a multi-dimensional England side that appears to be peaking at just the right time.
It wasn't quite men against boys as no-one with the grizzled features of Italy tight-head Martin Castrogiovanni could be labelled as juvenile. It was more men against machines but then again there was nothing robotic about England's free-flowing performance - far from it.
Winger Chris Ashton may well take the plaudits for his record-breaking four-try haul but this was a superb all round team performance. England bristled with intent from the first whistle and Italy could not live with their hosts in this kind of mood or counter some superb running rugby. The tempo and adventure shown by Martin Johnson's side brought the crowd to its feet just as it did when the Wallabies were cast aside in the autumn and just like that day it was fly-half Toby Flood and scrum-half Ben Youngs who pulled the strings.
The dynamic duo wasted no time in setting the tone for the contest with an electric mix of pace and flair to carve open a woefully lacklustre Italian side. Both players continue to mature with each one's development serving to inspire the other and no doubt please Johnson. Of course, their ability to dominate a game rests largely on the fortunes of their pack and with the likes of lock Tom Palmer, flanker James Haskell and No.8 Nick Easter in devastating form they were able to pepper the Italians throughout. But to single out players does a disservice to an outstanding collective effort with the injection of fresh legs and minds from the bench - most notably scrum-half Danny Care, winger Matt Banahan and fly-half Jonny Wilkinson underlining their enviable strength in depth.
But just try denying Ashton a place in the headlines tomorrow morning. His manager is unlikely to go overboard in his praise such is the importance of the bigger picture - and Ashton's love of an elaborate dive - so it is left to us to herald his performance as one of the greatest seen in an England shirt. The last England player to score four tries in a single Championship match was Ronald Poulton against France in Paris in 1914 and as commendable his achievement I doubt he possessed the skill set of Ashton - specifically the exceptional vision, support play and work rate. It is nine tries in nine Tests now for the likeable 23-year-old and he has already equalled the record of six tries in one Six Nations campaign that is currently held by Will Greenwood and Shane Williams. And as long as he continues to cross the whitewash his manager will no doubt excuse him the showboating. But despite his quartet of tries he did not claim the biggest cheer of the day which befell his wing partner Mark Cueto after he ended a run of 18 Test without a try.
The large majority of the 80,000 crowd would have been aware of Cueto's pain and when he crashed over the place erupted. The crowd favourite was also engulfed by his team-mates who were evidently as delighted as Cueto himself. The veteran speedster has been in vintage form despite his try drought and the confidence that comes from scoring bodes well for him and England.
Amidst the jubilation it must be remembered that England will rarely get such an easy day at the office against a predictably limited Italy. And as impressive as England's display was there were enough errors - most notably some poor kicking out of hand and some needless penalties - to keep Johnson and co busy in the weeks ahead. England still lack a clinical edge at times and tougher opponents down the road will not be as generous in terms of scoring opportunities. At times against the Italians the hosts were almost too eager to lay their hands on the ball and wreak havoc and that enthusiasm was punished by referee Craig Joubert. As a result it appears one of the biggest challenges facing Johnson is to harness a side brimming with talent and more importantly bursting with confidence in their ability.
Sadly for Italy the picture is bleak. The performance against Ireland in Rome could well have been a turning point had they managed to claim an historic triumph. But it was not to be and even if they had held on for the win there was little hope of it propelling them to an even greater success at Twickenham against an England side on an upward curve. Italy are not in the habit of producing more than one notable performance in any Championship year and you sense that came against the Irish.
For all their forward endeavour there was no cutting edge and while their defence was impressive at times they lack the discipline required to shackle a side like England for 80 minutes. With such shortcomings there are more dark days ahead of them in this year's Championship.
Much was made of the front row showdown and in particular the match-up between grizzled Castrogiovanni and England debutant Alex Corbisiero. But any fears that the England youngster would be the victim of a scrummaging lesson proved to be unfounded.
Corbisiero never once looked out of place but will be grateful for the support of his front row colleagues Dylan Hartley and Dan Cole. Hartley's star continues to rise following another action-packed display while Cole can lay claim to the tight-head bragging rights when he and Castrogiovanni return to domestic duty with the Tigers.
England's victory over Wales last weekend was soon overshadowed by France's success against Scotland and it remains to be seen whether Les Bleus can eclipse their cross-Channel rivals again when they take on Ireland on Sunday. Either way, France's visit to Twickenham in two weeks time is already shaping up as a classic.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum.