I’ve started the last few Six Nations with excitement looking at the talent in the England squad and hoping they can express themselves in the tournament, only to be left disappointed.
While Saturday’s opening round win over Italy in Rome wasn’t perfect — especially in defence in the first half — I think Steve Borthwick will return home relatively happy.
I’m really looking forward to seeing the team make further improvements against Wales on Saturday before tougher games to come against Scotland, Ireland and France.
England were certainly given a scare at the Stadio Olimpico but did just enough. They fixed their defensive issues in the second half and there were promising signs of attacking development too.
England had good variety to their attack and numerous running options off scrum-half Alex Mitchell. They hit up the middle off George Ford at 10, went to width and used some nice little kicks in attack.
England’s win over Italy in their Six Nations opener wasn’t perfect as they were tested by Italy
Steve Borthwick can take some positives from the game – even if there are improvements to be made
Alex Mitchell was among players to make a positive impact for England (pictured scoring their second try)
Some of the forwards even stepped in at scrum-half when the ball was there to be moved, which sped up the ruck.
This was not the finished product and definitely wasn’t perfect, but it certainly was a platform on which to build.
Felix Jones is a new addition to the England set-up as the man in charge of their defence. He arrived from South Africa, where he won back-to-back World Cups, so he’s come with a big reputation.
From speaking to a few England players, my understanding is that Jones wants huge line speed and a strong blitz, with players flying up to force the attack back in, make dominant hits and create turnovers. But adapting to any new coach takes time.
We saw England struggle in defence initially because there is still some learning going on.
England’s defence was constantly caught narrow, which showed for Italy’s two first-half tries. It was a recurring theme.
When Alessandro Garbisi scored, England’s last man was stood in the middle of the field.
Ollie Chessum flew up in defence, acting on Jones’s wishes to bring a South African-style defence, but the combination of him not making the tackle and his team-mates not following his lead led to the Garbisi try.
England struggled in defence and were consistently caught narrow which showed for Italy’s two first-half tries
England were also narrow again after a kick for Italy’s second try. At the time, it was very worrying but to give credit to Borthwick and Jones, the consistent high-line speed needed by everyone in a white jersey was fixed.
The defence being caught too tight continued and will need to be addressed for next week.
Italy were kept scoreless for almost the entire second half until Monty Ioane’s late breakaway effort. It was ironic that it was England’s attack which kept them in the game.
For far too long now we have seen the team struggle to create try scoring opportunities and break down opposition defences. There were signs in Rome that may soon change.
Like Jones, Andrew Strawbridge has joined as a new face in the English set-up in charge of skills. Again like Jones, he is highly regarded, having worked with New Zealand.
He hasn’t had much time with the team, but in Rome England looked quicker in attack, had options at the line and moved the ball nicely. That much was shown by Elliot Daly’s try.
Tommy Freeman played a key role, running a really nice line, and Mitchell’s try scoring effort was typical of the form he has been showing in the Premiership with Northampton.
At one point in the game, the statistics showed 62 per cent of England’s rucks were between one to three seconds. Again, this is a positive sign and a marked contrast to recent campaigns, when England have really struggled to recycle the ball quickly. But they were still behind at the break.
There is still significant work for the team to do to reach the sort of standard we saw from Ireland against France on Friday night.
England will be satisfied by their victory even if they won’t be fully happy about their display
England will be disappointed at the final score and not getting a four-try bonus point, but it’s a winning start and that’s all that matters. England have still never lost to Italy.
I thought the Azzurri put in an impressive display. They capitalised on England’s poor defence and won the try count three to two.
They would have been desperate to win but can still take heart from a narrow defeat, especially as this was their first game under a new coach.
England won’t be fully happy, but still satisfied. Italy will be left thinking what might have been as they finished up valiant losers once again.