England are to limp into a Six Nations title showdown with Wales next weekend after stuttering past Italy 18-11 on Sunday with their most disjointed performance of the tournament.
It is four wins from four for England, meaning a first Grand Slam since 2003 is still on, but they were handed a huge scare from an Italy team given next to no chance of ending an 18-match losing run in this fixture.
Bereft of imagination and clearly feeling the pressure late on, the English were kept tryless and needed a flawless display of place-kicking by flyhalf Toby Flood, who booted six penalties, to guide the leaders home in thoroughly unconvincing fashion.
“We have come through a massive scare there,” England forwards coach Graham Rowntree said.
Italy scored the only try, through winger Luke McLean in the 49th, and were camped in England’s 22 in an unexpectedly tense final 15 minutes in which the hosts’ scramble defense only just kept their opponents at bay. Italy captain Sergio Parisse was everywhere, a beacon of energy and pure class who did not deserve to be on the losing side.
Fans will need to bring a calculator to Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium on Saturday, given the permutations.
England are two points clear of second-placed Wales and have a superior points difference of 14. If Wales beat their fiercest rivals by eight points or more, they will retain the title; a win by seven points would leave the title going down to tries scored — and Wales have the edge by two. Anything else and England will come back across the Severn Bridge with the trophy.
“We won’t be thinking about points differential too much,” said England coach Stuart Lancaster, who sat ashen-faced in his seat in the final stages as Italy homed in on his team’s tryline.
“No one has been punching the air in delight. It’s a case of lessons learnt and we need to improve going into next week,” he added.
While victory was naturally the order of the day, winning by a big enough margin to render Wales’ task next week as near impossible would have been a close second for England. Italy were fresh off losses to Scotland and Wales, and had conceded an average of 35 points in their six previous trips to Twickenham.
Yet, for various reasons — Italy’s gritty defense, England forcing play too much, the pressure of expectation — the hosts simply froze.
England were unrecognizable late on, making so many basic mistakes, especially with their kicking. Ben Youngs had to hack the ball out of play to bring the game to a close, soon after fellow substitute Courtney Lawes pinched an Italy lineout 10m out. Never have England been so desperate against Italy.
“The guys on the field were hanging on,” Rowntree said.
Even a draw would have been one of the most surprising results in Six Nations history and Wales, who have won their past three games, will quite rightly be confident ahead of next weekend.
“Italy showed they had character, showed they wanted to fight the England team,” Italy coach Jacques Brunel said. “We had good possession, but England had more discipline.”
It had all looked so different early on. Despite Parisse’s best efforts — “I thought his performance was outstanding,” Lancaster said — England had all the possession and settled into a tempo.
However, all they had for their first-half dominance was four penalties from Flood and a 12-3 lead. Flood was held up over the line in the 24th in England’s best chance, but Italy also went close when Parisse’s deft inside pass on halfway sent Alessandro Zanni clear, only for the attack to peter out 10m out.
The Azzurri also emerged relatively unscathed from the sin-binning of scrumhalf Edoardo Gori for pulling back Flood off the ball and the loss of prop Martin Castrogiovanni, who injured his left leg.
England would have trotted off to the dressing room frustrated and disappointed, but things just got worse.
Luciano Orquera canceled out an early second-half penalty by Flood and then delivered a perfect cross-field kick behind the out-of-position Chris Ashton right into the path of McLean, who dotted down in the left corner. The conversion was missed, but Italy’s tails were up at just 15-11 down.
England captain Chris Robshaw dropped a high kick under no pressure. Flood’s kicking out of hand became aimless. Tackles were missed. England, suddenly, were a shambles.
“I felt we let our control slip — Italy pushed us right to the end,” Lancaster said.
Orquera missed a chance to put Italy just one point behind as he skewed a penalty wide, while Flood’s sixth of the afternoon — in the 62nd — gave England a seven-point cushion they would never lose.
However, only a lack of control at critical moments denied Italy a famous result.
Wales will be uplifted by what they saw in London.
“Four from four isn’t a bad place to be in,” England defense coach Andy Farrell said. “When it comes down to the last game, form goes out of the window.”