England went to Rome on Saturday looking for as big a win as possible over Italy to heap Six Nations title pressure on rivals Ireland and France who were kicking off later in the evening in Paris – but Eddie Jones’ side took an eternity to produce, requiring 67 minutes to secure the bonus-point try and finally managing just a 29-point winning margin on a 34-5 scoreline. 

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Second in the table coming into Super Saturday, England had fallen to third by kick-off time following Scotland’s early afternoon win over Wales. But having enjoyed an average winning margin of 33 points across their last six championship wins over Italy, the expectation was that they would make light work of the opposition. 

They did quickly get stuck into their task against the Azzurri, an opposition without a single Six Nations win since 2015 and who were beaten 50-17 from Ireland last weekend in Dublin. However, Ben Youngs’ fifth-minute try wasn’t following by the expected scoring avalanche. 

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Billy Vunipola’s pre-game take on the clash with Italy

The resilient Italians had made seven-try Ireland wait until the 61st minute to bag the four-try bonus point that put them one-point clear ahead of England and France on the table coming into this weekend, and it took England six minutes longer than the Irish to confirm their bonus-point try in this five-try win.

While an Ireland bonus-point win in Paris was always going to guarantee them the title regardless of what England did in Italy, the reduced margin of victory at Stadio Olimpico left the Irish heading into that Stade de France game knowing a win by six points would give them the title (provided they score one try – a tryless six-point win would see the title shared).

If that materialises, England will be left to rue their cancelled hit-out last Sunday against the Barbarians as they were rusty in Rome and the first-half tactic of repeatedly booting away the ball rather than running with it didn’t help their cause. Here’s how their players rated nearly a year to the day after their World Cup final loss to South Africa:  

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15. GEORGE FURBANK – 4

Started twice in February but didn’t convince and it was a similar verdict here. There was one good touch-finder on 27 minutes, but offered little else and was involved in the comedic moment that nearly cost a try just before the break. 

14. ANTHONY WATSON – 4

Fell off a number of first-half tackles and had little involvement on the ball. Was yanked early in the second half after England’s third try. 

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13. JONATHAN JOSEPH – 4

Limited first-half offering due to England’s belligerent over-use of the box kick but the one time he was really called into action on 28 minutes he flapped at a cross-kick from Owen Farrell. Continued to struggle after the interval to make an impact and made way for debut-making Ollie Lawrence near the finish. 

12. HENRY SLADE – 6

Came into this off the back of an incredible few weeks with Exeter and initially continued his form, starting with a neat grubber kick off his left peg in Jonny May’s direction. However, England’s first-half tactics didn’t suit but he eventually went on to score their fifth try on 72 minutes. 

11. JONNY MAY – 6

Couldn’t gather two early grubbers sent his way, the ball refusing to sit up for him, but stayed on message and crucially touched down behind his line to clear up the 40th-minute defensive mess that nearly cost a second try. Penalised for holding on which pierced growing England momentum near the hour before they eventually got the job done. 

10. OWEN FARRELL – 6

Appearing in his first match since his club red card eight weeks ago, he was quickly into the groove in setting up Youngs for the opening score but was very stodgy thereafter, his limited confidence in his team illustrated by how he went for the posts for a 13th-minute penalty instead of going to the corner. Needed to provide more composed leadership and greater variety to his game.

9. BEN YOUNGS – 6

Became only the second-ever England player to win 100 caps and he celebrated his centurion status in excellent fashion with a try after just five minutes. Quickly became over dependant on the box kick tactic, though, and his defending, which was generally flaky, was critically exposed in the tackle slip trying to catch the try-scoring Jake Polledri. Had a second-half point to prove and took just 55 seconds to do so, dummying his way to score with a run from the 22. Left the scene late on for Dan Robson. 

1. MAKO VUNIPOLA – 6

Missed England’s last outing in March due to isolation protocols but set the set-piece tone at the first scrum here, forcing a penalty win. Then popped the neat pass that sent Farrell through the gap to set up the first try. Later won another scrum penalty on 35 minutes at a time when England were under siege. Gave way three tries in for Ellis Genge. 

2. JAMIE GEORGE – 7

This was his 50th England appearance but didn’t bring initially enjoy the level of involvement he would have hoped. A yellow-carded in-at-the-side by Italy denied him a maul try on 38 minutes but he nailed that type of score on 51 minutes and his mauling then set up the ruck for the bonus-point score. Threw very well out of touch. 

3. KYLE SINCKLER – 5

Hasn’t been the top-performing Sinckler we all know and love since his recent switch to Bristol, something we were reminded of on 18 minutes when he snatched at the Watson pass that led to Italy’s try from Polledri. Lasted 63 minutes before Will Stuart was introduced. 

4. MARO ITOJE – 7

The style and polish to Jonny Hill’s rough and ready approach, he showed his athleticism with one turnover on halfway just prior to Italy’s opening try. Struggled for a time in the tough patch that followed and was rounded on by the Italian pack on 32 minutes, three minutes before he excellently held an opposition ball carrier up over the try line. Caught the Hill deflection that resulted in Youngs’ early second-half try and his general urgency was central to rousing England from their slumber.  

5. JONNY HILL – 6

With George Kruis decommissioned, Jones needed a menacing enforcer and Hill was straight into the thick of it with clear catch at the first lineout. Unluckily yellow-carded on 22 minutes for TMO-reviewed high tackle on Edoardo Padovani. His instinctive play wasn’t matched by some colleagues as it was his lineout steal on halfway that became the Italian counter attack nearly produced a try. Made the important deflection that stopped Italy clearing at the start of the second half, igniting Youngs try. Then fetched the lineout that brought the bonus-point try on 67 minutes before being replaced by Charlie Ewels. 

6. TOM CURRY – 6

Nearly had a fourth-minute try after a charged down kick, involvement that augured well but he was soon put off his game by the robust, in-your-face Italians. Lucky to escape an early second-half yellow for late tackle on Mattia Bellini. Continued to find the battle at the breakdown difficult but demonstrated his intelligence and his stickability by scampering down the blindside at the ruck to grab the crucial 67th minute bonus-point try. 

7. SAM UNDERHILL – 5

Wouldn’t have expected to have been so busy on the defence but the first-half momentum shift at 10-0 had England under the pump and the energetic-tackling Underhill pumping blood. His head was a bloodied mess by the 30th minute, he needed a jersey change some minutes later and was then replaced by Ben Earl on 36 minutes. Patched up for the second half but gone on 54 minutes for Earl again who went on to impress, setting Slade up his late try.

8. BILLY VUNIPOLA – 6

Very busy in the collisions early on, he was England’s main ball-carrying focus but with his team losing their direction, his own broken concentration was visible in a needless show of temper on 39 minutes. Went on to clock up a ball carry of nearly 70 metres, but could have done with a hit-out last week to dust off the cobwebs and cause the Italians greater headaches.   

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