England had size but for Italy there were only more sighs. The home side have scored more than 100 points in their last two games here in the Six Nations, but they will not win the title if Wales defeat Italy on Saturday, even though the men in white could finish level with them at the top of the table with a vastly superior points difference.
When the Six Nations introduced bonus points three years ago, it was after a longer period of resistance because of the fact that a team could win the grand slam but not the title. A clean sweep for Wales would see them awarded an extra three points to take them beyond England who finish with Scotland here in the last match of the final weekend.
Whatever the outcome, England will look back on their defeat in Cardiff as an opportunity wasted. They did not have to take out their frustration on Italy whose tackling was not robust enough to put down a shop window dummy never mind the likes of Joe Cokanasiga, who was rampant throughout, and Manu Tuilagi, who scored two of his side’s eight tries.
England tend to make fast starts at Twickenham, but it took them seven minutes to fashion a try here. They could have had one in the opening minute after Cokanasiga gathered a chip and passed out of the back of his hand to Tom Curry but the flanker dropped the ball, as if caught by surprise.
The home side fielded a three-quarter line that was not the lightest in their history, but it was pace that unsettled Italy as they conceded a try bonus in 31 minutes. England never allowed their opponents respite and if they defended narrowly, they attacked with width, using the power of Tuilagi and Cokanasiga to take on defenders one-to-one more often than charge through a blue wall.
It took England only a few minutes to abandon their kicking strategy, perhaps put off by the prop Kyle Sinckler putting his boot to the ball just outside Italy’s 22 but finding touch rather than Jonny May. They went direct for their first try after Simone Ferrari collapsed a scrum five metres from Italy’s line and Owen Farrell kicked to touch.
Joe Launchbury caught the ball at the front of the line-out and, as Italy massed to defend that area, England smuggled to the ball outside and met little resistance as they rumbled towards the line with Jamie George in possession. Italy had barely mustered an attack but they were level within four minutes, taking play through a dozen phases before Tommaso Allan dummied into space and, realising that an inside pass to Angelo Esposito was not on, kept going and had the momentum to bundle past Ben Youngs.
Esposito and Youngs missed three tackles in the first half and two led directly to tries. Esposito came off his wing after 14 minutes but barely laid a hand on Elliot Daly as the full-back made an outside break to supply May with his ninth Test try here in his last nine matches. Six minutes later, Esposito made no impact as Manu Tuilagi ran through him and away from Michele Campagnaro for a 50-metre try.
It was too easy for England. After Farrell opted to take three points with a penalty under the posts, Tuilagi caused havoc again, running through Allan to set up Brad Shields for his first Test try and a bonus point that will be academic if Wales secure the grand slam. Esposito’s underwhelming half ended when he chased Jayden Hayward’s kick to England’s line, beating the defenders but not the bounce.
Italy enjoyed the bulk of possession and territory in the opening half, which shows how statistics can mislead as they trailed 31-7. It was to quickly get worse. Cokanasiga drifted into midfield and although he was hauled down just short, he set up a ruck rather than attempt an unlikely offload as he again clutched the ball in one hand. England had a three-man overlap, which George’s long pass to Tuilagi fully exploited with Esposito again left clutching air.
With the contest over, the question was how long would Dan Robson remain on the bench. The prop Dan Cole was the first to leave it after 55 minutes, hardly a finisher but there was nothing to finish. England had used a hefty interval lead in their previous home match against France to go through some defensive sets. They kept out Les Bleus, but Italy worked space for their second try on 53 minutes when Luca Morisi crossed on the left wing.
Robson replaced Youngs with 19 minutes to go and George Ford came on to the pitch with him to complete a new half-back pairing. The match was drifting and the replacements gave it a stimulus, although the next try came when Hayward cleared from under his own posts with George Kruis close enough to shake hands. The ball hit the second row in the face but he barely felt it and reached for the line after a kind bounce.
And then the wait for Robson became worthwhile as he finished off a move started by Daly and taken on by Cokanasiga on an afternoon when the wing invariably defied the first attempt to bring him down, using his right hand to clutch the ball and the left to fend off any attempt to bring him to the ground. He started the match at 6ft 4ins and finished it much taller, possessing not just power but skill, awareness and pace. Stronger sides than Italy would have struggled to contain him.
Shields completed the scoring with his second try after charging down Tito Tebaldi’s kick on Italy ‘s line. It was the Azzurri’s 21st consecutive defeat in the tournament and, other than nightmares about Cokanasiga and Tuilagi, what did they gain from it?