England 47 Italy 17
England launched World Cup year at Twickenham by sweeping Italy aside 47-17 to generate further momentum in their quest for a first RBS 6 Nations title under Stuart Lancaster.
The brilliance of Jonathan Joseph was evident once again as the lightening-fast outside centre followed up his try against Wales by plundering two more, his footwork and pace tormenting the Azzurri defence.
Billy Vunipola, Ben Youngs, Danny Cipriani and Nick Easter also crossed, but it proved to be an afternoon of frustration after the euphoria of an outstanding start to the Championship in Cardiff.
Italy touched down through Sergio Parisse and Luca Morisi, who claimed two tries, and failed to finish two more chances, while fly-half Kelly Haimona was unable to land a single one of his four attempts at goal.
A substantial improvement will be needed if England are to remain on course for the Grand Slam by dispatching Ireland in their pivotal Dublin showdown on March 1.
Other than the devilry of man of the match Joseph there was little on this performance to frighten the Irish, although England’s management will justifiably credit Italy’s stubborn resistance for some of their own shortcomings.
The victory did not come without cost after Mike Brown was knocked unconscious during an early collision with Andrea Masi and had to be driven from the pitch on a medical cart following several minutes of treatment.
Brown later returned to watch from the stands, but the full-back now faces the return to play protocols for concussion and is a doubt for the third instalment of the Six Nations in Dublin.
England’s subsequent reshuffle appeared to be a missed opportunity as Joseph was switched to the right wing and Anthony Watson dropped back to full-back with Billy Twelvetrees coming on in midfield, Danny Cipriani remaining on the bench until his final-quarter arrival.
The move failed to blunt Joseph’s edge, however, with the Bath back enhancing his reputation and strengthening his claim to the number 13 jersey at the looming home World Cup.
His superb finish against Wales was clearly still fresh in the memory as a roar of approval greeted his first touch of the ball, but a bright start from England was rapidly undone when their whitewash was breached with worrying ease in the fourth minute.
Italy pinched home ball at the line-out, Morisi carried hard and when a half-chance presented itself on the left slick hands sent Parisse over.
Ferocious hits from Joe Marler and Luther Burrell helped stem an impressive opening from the 1/66 underdogs who almost crossed for a second time after Haimona caught the lowest of passes and chipped over for Andrea Masi.
Masi slipped, however, and it was during the chase for the ball that Brown’s head struck the centre’s shoulder, knocking him out.
England appeared to have settled once play resumed with Anthony Watson and Jonny May side-stepping into space, but Burrell threw an intercept pass and but for more composure wing Giovambattista Venditti would have been in.
The balance of power shifted early in the second quarter when tries from Vunipola and Joseph helped establish a 10-point cushion, with George Ford weighing with a conversion and penalty.
Italy were unpicked by a well-drilled line-out move from short range that saw play switched to a short blindside where Vunipola barrowed over with James Haskell adding his weight, but it was a dubious score.
Four minutes later England were in again with a turnover from captain Chris Robshaw in midfield launching a counter attack that was brilliantly finished by the jinking Joseph, who left a trail of blue shirts in his wake.
May’s indecision saw a two on one overlap wasted and the 2015 World Cup hosts continued to be their own worst enemies as their line cracked again in the 50th minute when Morisi forced his way between Haskell and Dave Attwood and darted over.
The reply from England was rapid, their scrum forcing a penalty five metres out and Youngs taking full advantage by taking a quick tap and darting over with Ford converting before adding his second penalty of the half.
Italy were fading and the lightening-fast Joseph took advantage as a pre-planned scrum move sent him racing clear and over the whitewash and play had barely resumed before Cipriani crossed, finishing a break by May.
It was then Easter’s turn to add his name to the scoresheet, burrowing over from a line-out, but Italy were not finished with Morisi grabbing a late try.