If this is how England are going to respond to unfamiliar surroundings at the forthcoming World Cup in Japan they are not going to frighten many opponents. Make all the polite noises you like about dress rehearsals or shadow boxing but, until the final quarter, this was far from the dominant 80-minute display Eddie Jones would have ideally liked ahead of his squad’s departure on Sunday .
If the hosts did perk up in the second half, having led 9-0 at the interval, it was only because they had no other option. Barely half an hour of the game had elapsed when Jones opted to haul off both his starting props, Joe Marler and Dan Cole, and it required second-half tries from Ben Youngs, Joe Marchant, Ellis Genge and Anthony Watson to earn a victory that, for the first 50 minutes, was significantly less comfortable than the final margin might suggest.
The premature departure of a sore-looking Joe Launchbury was another niggling concern on a night when a largely second-string Italian side competed stoutly until England’s superior fitness began to tell. While there are sizeable differences between Tyneside and Tokyo, the dozen turnovers and sluggish effort by England in the first 40 minutes were a reminder that much work remains to be done if Jones’s side are to conquer the world in the coming weeks. The good news is that their defence was sound, Owen Farrell’s goal-kicking was faultless and there are no other fresh casualties.
You could tell there was a World Cup looming even before kick-off. The sight of Farrell and George Ford practising their drop-goals in front of the Gallowgate End had nothing to do with Italy and everything to do with preparing for all eventualities in Japan. They seemed to be slotting most of them, although no one behind the posts appeared too impressed. Balls flying over the crossbar are a not infrequent occurrence in this particular amphitheatre.
Unlike football, though, England seldom play rugby internationals on a Friday night. This was only the second time it has ever happened – the first was the 2015 World Cup pool game against Fiji at Twickenham – and the rarity value of the whole occasion was sufficient to fill the vast majority of available seats on a mild, still evening. It was an auspicious night, in particular, for England’s debutant wing Ruaridh McConnochie, finally winning his first cap at the third attempt after injury cruelly intervened last month.
If the locals were hoping for a glittering exhibition of attacking red rose rugby with a first-half hat-trick from their adopted Cumbrian hero Mark Wilson they were sadly disappointed. England looked flat and curiously hesitant and only led after half an hour courtesy of two straightforward Farrell penalties.
Italy, as always under Conor O’Shea, lacked nothing for early endeavour and, on occasions, looked the brighter side with the ball in hand. They also came closest to a try, centre Tommaso Benvenuti squandering a golden chance when he dropped the ball with the line at his mercy in the 12th minute. Number eight Jimmy Tuivaiti, flanker Sebastian Negri and fly-half Carlo Canna asked persistent questions and Jayden Hayward was an authoritative presence at full-back.
Only on one occasion, when Wilson broke free down the left, was there much for the home fans to cheer about but the flanker’s inside ball was too low for May to gather cleanly. The wing was looking his side’s sharpest threat but, frankly, the field of contenders was thinly populated. It was enough to ensure the shepherd’s crook for Cole and Marler with seven minutes still to go before the interval, only for England to concede a scrum penalty at the first set-piece involving their replacements Kyle Sinckler and Genge.
Was it pre-ordained? You never quite know with Jones but it did not feel like it. These warm-up games can be strange beasts but it was not exactly a move designed to send Cole and Marler skipping happily on to the plane to Japan. It was another brutal reminder that Jones is not remotely bothered about ruffling egos if circumstances demand it and the England half-time huddle contained some stern-looking faces. The disappointed jeers when Farrell opted to kick another penalty shortly before the break rather than opt for something more eye-catching summed up the prevailing mood.
Happily for all concerned the second-half was much better, with Marchant showing good pace to score his first England try and both Genge and Watson making the most of the extra space which coincided with Ford’s arrival. Everything is strictly relative, though. This was the Azzurri’s 20th defeat in 27 games under O’Shea and they are about to dip their toes into an unforgiving World Cup pool alongside New Zealand and South Africa. They have already lost to France and Ireland in the past month and their 85-15 victory over Russia would have carried more value had their opponents not also recently lost at home to the Championship team Jersey. England will fly to Japan with three warm-up wins out of four but, in terms of becoming world champions, there is still a distance left to travel.
Scotland win but Toolis suffers head injury
Gregor Townsend’s Scotland won their final World Cup warm-up with a fiercely-contested 36-9 victory over Georgia at Murrayfield. Georgia put up stubborn resistance, trailing 10-9 at the break, but the Scots moved clear in the second-half with tries from Sam Johnson, Darcy Graham and the Horne brothers, George and Pete.
There was cause for concern late on, though, as lock Ben Toolis was helped off after suffering a head injury, leaving Townsend sweating on his fitness ahead of their opener with Ireland in little over a fortnight’s time. Centre Chris Harris told the BBC: “We started really poorly tonight. The positive is we didn’t concede a try – but we cannot start like that at the World Cup.”