Dull England ploughs on through the snow Posted over 4 years ago

England were escorted from their hotel to the Olympic Stadium in Rome by a snow plough. It could serve as a metaphor for their progress under the interim head coach Stuart Lancaster.

It is not just the pace at which England are playing – for the second consecutive week their one try came from a Charlie Hodgson charge-down – but they are looking to plough their way through defences, attacking down narrow channels.

It was only when Lee Dickson replaced Ben Youngs at scrum-half and the burly Ben Morgan came on for Phil Dowson on 50 minutes that England started to play with greater pace: Morgan made some busts and Dickson got the ball away quickly.

England still struggled to get the ball wide and the switch of Chris Ashton to the left wing has taken the chip ahead out of his arsenal because he is right-footed. He scored four tries in this fixture last season, but was in danger of becoming a snowman on Saturday.

Victory mattered more than the performance, as was the case in Scotland. A four-point margin over a side used to finishing at the bottom of the Six Nations may not augur better things, but the conditions were difficult: it had snowed in Rome the night before and again in the hours leading up to the kick-off.

The pitch was white and leaf-blowers were utilised to free the pitch of snow, but as the only area uncovered was the patch covering the tournament sponsor’s logo, it seemed Italy were happy to grapple for a snowball.

Mistakes abounded, though some of them were such that perfect weather conditions would have made no difference. England’s first real attack ended when Dylan Hartley, in the centre, threw out a poor pass to Tom Croft on the wing.

England have not got over their habit under the previous regime of clogging the midfield with forwards. When they had the chance to attack from turnover possession, they lacked the quick hands to get the ball along the line.

With Italy spearheaded by the erratic Kris Burton at outside-half – he attacked the line but made some strange decisions – the game rarely rose above the mediocre, and contrasted starkly with the quality of the match between Ireland and Wales the previous Sunday.

The Italy No 8 Sergio Parisse was an exception, regularly breaking the line and retaining his composure when assessing his options. His effectiveness was reduced on 46 minutes when he was taken out by Croft as he chased his own chip, but the pity for Parisse is that is he a thoroughbred surrounded by mongrels.

Croft’s foul allowed Italy to go 15-6 ahead. The Azzurri had trailed 6-0 just before the break but two mistakes by the England full-back Ben Foden gave the home side hope of a first victory over the men in white at the 18th attempt: Foden dropped the ball on the line and then, with 40 minutes up on the clock, he threw a slow pass on the halfway line that was intercepted.

England did not panic, but they did not have time to. Italy had only been sitting on their cushion for two minutes when Andrea Masi’s laboured clearance was charged down by Hodgson whose side were soon back in the lead thanks to Azzurri indiscipline and the unerring boot of Owen Farrell.

Farrell is Jonny Wilkinson reformed, also starting his international career at inside-centre. He cannot be described as an exciting player, but he is composed, makes precious few mistakes and tackles well above his weight. Whether he is the footballing 12 Lancaster maintains will be a focal point of his side only the coming months will tell.

Farrell epitomises where England are. Rome wasn’t built in a day and all that, but having played the two weakest sides in the tournament, their true tests are to come, starting with Wales at Twickenham at the end of the month.

It is some time since Wales went there as favourites, but England do have players returning, including the outside-half Toby Flood and the centre Manu Tuilagi, whose power will be needed against one of the biggest back divisions seen anywhere.

Never mind snow ploughs, Wales have a garage full of dump trucks. Rome marked the end of the beginning for England and the deadline for applications for the permanent position of head coach is this Wednesday.

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Paul Rees was born in Cardiff and has been a full-time writer on rugby union since 1986, first for the South Wales Echo, then Wales and Sunday and, from 2001, the Guardian and the Observer, having contributed to the former on a freelance basis since 1988. He has covered every World Cup since 1991 and five Lions tours. When time allows, he also write on cricket, mainly Glamorgan. And away from work, he a season-ticket holder at Arsenal, watching them home and away, including the European Champions League final against Barcelona in Paris in 2006.

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