England kept their hopes of back-to-back Grand Slams alive with a 36-15 victory over Italy at Twickenham on Sunday but only after being given a massive scare by the Azzurri.
In a week where Italy’s place in the Six Nations had been repeatedly called into question following their 63-10 thrashing by Ireland last time out, they defied all pre-match predictions to lead 10-5 at half-time.
And even when England recovered to go 17-10 up early in the second half, Italy centre Michele Campagnaro’s try on the hour mark cut the hosts’ advantage to 17-15.
Had Italy, who saw fly-half Tommaso Allan miss three penalties and fullback Edoardo Padovani off target with a conversion, landed all their goalkicks in difficult, blustery, conditions they might even have been celebrating a famous win.
Instead England, who scored five tries in the second half and gained a bonus point, stretched their impressive win streak to 17 in a row, just one shy of New Zealand’s all-time record for a tier-one nation.
Yet only two late tries from replacement back Jack Nowell and one from centre Ben Te’o put the result beyond all doubt and England found themselves frustrated up front.
Captain Dylan Hartley said: “We wanted to play quicker down at the ruck. I was confused by it.”
“Their mauling threat is huge and we conceded way too many penalties,” the hooker told ITV.
England coach Eddie Jones was typically less diplomatic and slammed Italy’s tactics, particularly in the ruck.
“Congratulations to Italy, but it’s not rugby today,” he said.
Italy coach Conor O’Shea countered by saying that his side had played within the laws of the game.
“Hopefully we’ve earned a bit of respect here today,” the Irishman said. “We are playing absolutely legally. We played to the laws and I thought we were fantastic.
“I’m very proud of the players today.”
Italy kept the game scoreless until the 24th minute when England prop Dan Cole was driven over for an unconverted try.
But Allan, who missed two earlier penalty attempts, cut the deficit for the vast underdogs with a well-taken drop-goal in the 33rd minute.
England, who had been massive odds-on favourites at 1/150 with some bookmakers before kick-off, astonishingly found themselves behind on the stroke of half-time.
An Allan penalty came back off the post and wing Giovanbattista Venditti was first to the loose ball for a try that stunned Twickenham.
Allan converted and Italy turned round five points in front.
But two tries in three minutes early in the second half from Danny Care and Elliot Daly, the latter converted by Owen Farrell, saw England into a 17-10 lead.
The opening quarter had ended with the game still scoreless as Italy frustrated England.
Hartley repeatedly asked for clarification from referee Romain Poite over what he would allow at the ruck, only for the French official to reply: “I am not a coach.”
England, unlike Italy however, did make the most of their first clear chance, with Cole bundled over from a catch and drive.
Farrell, winning his 50th cap, sliced his conversion but England were 5-0 up.
England, however, generally struggled to get out of their 22 and Italy’s pressure was rewarded when Allan landed a 20-metre drop-goal to cut the deficit to two points before Venditti’s try threatened an upset.
England regained the initiative with two tries in a matter of minutes at the start of the second half.
Care, in a move all too familiar to O’Shea, who coached him at London club Harlequins, then caught the Italian defence napping with a try off a quick tap penalty that left the scores tied at 10-10 following Farrell’s missed conversion.
Three minutes later, England went over again.
They won a line-out and, after Maro Itoje fed James Haskell, the ball was spread wide and wing Daly — whose late try saw England come from behind to beat Wales — went over.
This time Farrell converted and England had breathing space at 17-10.
Italy though were far from finished with Campagnaro, who plays his club rugby in England for Exeter, brushing past fly-half George Ford and weaving past fullback Mike Brown for a fine try.
Padovani failed with the conversion but England’s lead had been cut to just two points.
The normally reliable Farrell then missed another penalty before Nowell, either side of Te’o’s score, crossed twice against a tiring defence.