England put last week’s Scotland defeat behind them with a six-try 41-18 Six Nations victory over Italy at Twickenham on Saturday as Anthony Watson scored two tries and Jonny May claimed a memorable one with an astonishing, acrobatic leap.
Jonny Hill, Jack Willis and Elliot Daly also scored but the young Italy side were far from disgraced, despite falling to a 29th successive Six Nations defeat.
England were scrappy and inaccurate in the early stages but eventually settled to their task and showing signs of the cohesive attacking coach Eddie Jones had called for after last week’s poor showing.
In response to that, Jones had opted against throwing in his youngsters, instead fielding the most experienced England XV ever to take the field, with 810 caps between them against a desperately inexperienced Italian team.
It was the visitors who struck first though, with a well-crafted try after two minutes by winger Monty Ioane, nephew of former Australia wing Digby.
A pushover score by Hill and a penalty apiece had it level at 8-8 midway through the half, before England grabbed control with scores by both wingers.
First Watson stepped inside some soft defence for his first try in 11 months, then May launched a spectacular dive over a covering defender – technically an illegal move and something more often seen in American football – to take the halftime lead to 20-8 and his personal try tally to 32, clear in second place behind Rory Underwood (49) in England’s roll of honour.
Watson ran 60 metres to score his second after intercepting Paolo Garbisi and Willis crossed within a minute of joining the fray after a great break by replacement scrumhalf Dan Robson, who looked really lively in a rare opportunity to have 30 minutes on the pitch.
Soon after, however, Willis suffered a serious-looking knee injury, the flanker’s scream of pain echoing round an empty Twickenham, and he needed almost 10 minutes of medical attention before he was carried off on a stretcher.
England were caught cold on the restart as Tommaso Allan slipped though a big gap but they hit back immediately with a score by Daly.
With Watson delivering a great cameo as stand-in flanker and Robson pulling the strings, England were knocking at the door for the final 10 minutes but, hugely to their credit, Italy, who so often crumble in the latter stages, kept them out.
“That was back to being us,” said England captain Owen Farrell. “Not the best performance we have ever had but in terms of the feeling energy and intent that was back to being us.
“We had some honest conversations in the week, and got things right on the training field. I thought we attacked the game, our intent was brilliant, we got in behind them, not everything went our way but we stuck at it.”
Italy coach Franco Smith was upbeat despite the defeat. “It was another step up for us, a step in the right direction,” he said. “The spine of our team is a really young group but this was much better than last week.
“Unfortunately we made a lot of unforced errors – our game management needs attention but a lot of boxes were ticked today.”
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