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ENGLAND’S quest for an unprecedented hat-trick of Six Nations titles was launched by a 46-15 victory over Italy yesterday that produced a late flurry of tries.
The champions exploded out of the blocks by crossing twice through Anthony Watson inside the opening 10 minutes, but the overwhelming win their early onslaught appeared to signpost only materialised in the closing stages.
In the end Italy’s whitewash was breached seven times in the bonus-point visit to the Stadio Olimpico, but England were made to work by a team that had nine starters with 10 caps or fewer.
Eddie Jones had urged his players to set the tone for their campaign by putting the Azzurri to the sword and they responded, but there will be plenty to pick apart, not least the way they were exposed out wide when leaking two tries.
The victory came at a cost too, as Ben Youngs was forced off in the ninth minute with what appeared to be a serious knee injury inflicted when the joint buckled awkwardly during a tackle.
The Leicester captain screamed in pain and was driven from the pitch by the medical cart, enabling Danny Care to make his 77th Test appearance and equal Matt Dawson’s record as England’s most capped scrum-half.
Youngs’s distress points to a significant lay-off and, having relied on just two players in the position for virtually his entire reign, Jones will finally have to summon a third option.
From the moment Watson ran in the opening try after 172 seconds, a 24th victory over Italy looked assured.
George Ford was the ringmaster, springing into action after Ben Te’o made a strong carry with a wrap-around move and slick handling sending Watson over.
The Bath wing’s second took more finishing, but he was able to touch down with an outstretched arm after Jonny May had made the initial break in midfield.
Tommaso Benvenuti ran on to a long pass by Tommaso Allan to interrupt the flow of England’s tries with a superb score but a gap appeared in midfield soon after and Farrell shaped to pass before accelerating over.
Time and again the Azzurri had to scramble furiously to keep the visitors at bay, but they were also asking questions of their own when in the 22 as they sought to mark lock Alessandro Zanni’s 100th cap by recording a first win in the fixture.
For all their inexperience, Italy were generating plenty of possession and at times they attacked at pace only to be met with a wall of white shirts.
They were error-prone, however, and their line-out defence disintegrated in the 52nd minute to allow Sam Simmonds to pierce through the middle and sprint over.
Italy’s ongoing endeavour was rewarded when Mattia Bellini touched down in the left corner after England were exposed out wide for a second time, but any hope of causing an upset expired when Farrell sent Ford over.
The home side were falling apart in the face of their opponents’ superior conditioning, enabling Simmonds and Jack Nowell to help themselves to late tries.
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