An error-strewn England team managed to secure a bonus-point win over an Italy side who battled hard and put the home team under pressure until the final whistle.
The Italians started fantastically, winning a line-out 5 metres from the English line a few minutes into the first half. They sucked in the English defence through a series of pick and drives, before spreading the ball out wide to full back Furlan, who had acres of space. She dabbed a neat little grubber kick into the corner and the ball was scooped up by Stefan who dived over to score the opening try. Centre Sillari missed the conversion, but the Italians looked dangerous.
The Red Roses looked rusty, basic errors and poor decision-making really hampering their game. The new half back pairing of La Toya Mason and Natalie Scott looked to be on different wavelengths at times, and the back-line couldn’t seem to get going.
However, a poor kick from the Italian fly half landed right in the arms of lock Harriet Miller-Mills just outside her opponents’ 22 metre line. She displayed some fine footwork to beat two defenders and was eventually brought down 10 metres from the Italians’ line. After some short balls to the forwards, scrum half Mason spun the ball out left to Emily Scarratt, who drew two defenders before popping the ball to winger Kay Wilson, who dotted down in the corner. For all their lucklustre play, England were drawing 5 – 5 after Scarratt missed the conversion from out wide.
And they were in for their second a couple of minutes later, as flanker Alex Matthews broke through some poor Italian defending, rampaging up the middle of the pitch and into the 22. Some good hands down the blindside from Scott and prop Keates, who popped the ball back inside to Wilson-Hardy to score. Scarratt nailed the conversion and England were in front, leading 12 – 5.
Italy lock Elisa Pillotti was yellow carded a few minutes later for a high tackle on Vicky Fleetwood, and England kicked to the corner. Miller-Mills won the line-out and the forwards set up a rolling maul, which powered over the line. Hooker Vicky Fleetwood was at the back and got the try, and England were starting to click.
The bonus-point try came shortly after, with another strong rolling maul powering through Italy’s defence from the 22 metre line. Fleetwood went over for her second and Scarratt converted, making the score 24 – 5.
The first half petered out after that, with the Red Roses making handling errors and seemingly lacking in direction. The Italians were content to kick the ball away quite often, but they weren’t getting much distance on them and were putting themselves under a bit of pressure.
England started the second half a bit brighter, stringing the phases together and keeping possession, something they’d failed to do in the first half. The Italian defence was up to the task, though, and kept the Red Roses from making any significant ground.
Vicky Fleetwood had her hat trick ten minutes later, after another perfect line-out win and driving maul led to a fifth England try. Scarratt missed the conversion, but England had a comfortable lead and looked more settled.
Emily Scarratt was heavily involved in some good moves for England, making half breaks and displaying her passing and offloading skills. However, handling errors were again affecting the Red Roses’ ability to build pressure against a solid Italian defence.
And Italy were rewarded for their defence when a poor kick from Mason was fielded by Furlan, who palmed off Wilson-Hardy and chipped ahead. Sarah Hunter failed to gather the ball, which bounced into the in-goal area. Scrum half Barattin beat Miller-Mills and Sarah McKenna to it, and Italy had their second try, a fine effort. England really should have dealt better with the kick ahead, but the Italians certainly deserved the try.
Katie McLean came on at fly-half for England and the back-line immediately looked better, but a fluid move off a line-out was scuppered by another knock-on out wide.
McLean got her hands on the ball a few minutes later and dabbed through a perfectly-weighted kick. The Italian winger scampered back and gathered it on her own line, but knocked on under a strong tackle from McLean. Fleetwood dived on it and the referee gave the try. However, after intervention from the TMO, the try was disallowed and McLean was red carded for the tackle, as the referee judged that she had lifted the Italian winger and driven her head-first into the ground.
England were down to thirteen a few minutes later when replacement Poppy Cleall was shown a yellow card for a high tackle. The Italians made their advantage count, Furlan scoring in the corner to make it 29 – 15.
The Red Roses held out well in the last few minutes, their defence repelling the Italian attack. Italy looked likely to score in the final couple of minutes, but a knock on let England off the hook and they gratefully booted the ball off the pitch to end the game.
POTM: Emily Scarratt again played very well, her passing in particular was lovely to watch. She ran hard, attracting defenders and making space for her wingers, and worked incredibly hard all match, sweeping up Italian kicks and making strong tackles.
Vicky Fleetwood gets an honourable mention as the first forward to score a hat trick in the 6 Nations, and nearly had four. She threw well at the line out and was a live-wire around the field, carrying well.
The changes made to the England side certainly showed, as they looked rusty, particularly the back-line. La Toya Mason’s passing was sometimes wayward, which put pressure on inexperienced Natalie Scott, and she was sometimes slow to rucks. The flowing, accurate play from the victory against Wales was absent, as knock-ons blighted the game.
In the back three, Sarah McKenna ran well and slipped some tackles, but her inexperience showed as she chose the wrong option a few times, failing to pass when others were free. The wingers also could have done better. They were often trying to play too close to the side line, and made it easy for the Italian defence to slide across and shepherd them into touch.
The forwards played well, the line-out functioning better than in previous games, with more clean ball off the top. The rolling maul was a joy to behold, with Miller-Mills, Tamara Taylor and Sarah Hunter organising well, and the low body positions and leg drives from the other forwards responsible for three of England’s tries. Taylor also did well to disrupt the Italian maul.
In terms of the cards, both could be considered harsh, but by the letter of the law were fair. McLean’s tackle was a little reckless and she could have taken more care, especially once the Italian player had been lifted into the air, but can feel hard done by to get a red. Cleall’s was just unfortunate and purely accidental, as she caught the player across the chin with an outstretched arm after she had been stepped.
England got a lot of joy from first phase ball off the line-out, breaking through the centre of the Italian line three times. The Italian defence, however, was otherwise impressive and they pressurised the Red Roses into mistakes. They kicked more often than either France or Wales, but they failed to make much ground and often put themselves under pressure, giving the ball back to England in a good position to counter attack.
However, they can take real heart from the performance, scoring three nice tries and really pushing the Red Roses. Furlan and Barattin in particular played well and were central to their team’s tries.
England have a few things to work on before they play Scotland in a couple of weeks’ time, but it is likely that stalwarts Waterman, McLean (if not suspended) and Hunt will be back in the starting line-up, which should improve the Red Roses’ back-line play. They will be heartened by the way they played in the last few minutes when down to thirteen, and with Scarratt and Hunter also off the field.
England: (24) 29
Tries: Wilson, Wilson Hardy, Fleetwood (3); Cons: Scarratt (2)
Italy: (5) 15
Tries: Stefan, Barattin, Furlan