On a balmy evening in Rome it was as if England were grappling with two different opponents. Their blue-clad hosts were eventually seen off but the restrained red rose body language at the final whistle reflected the more complicated bigger picture. Not until the championship’s last tango in Paris had finished could they celebrate unreservedly.
The history books will also show that England’s Six Nations title, their first since 2017, owed most to a player for whom this was already a memorable weekend. In addition to winning his 100th England cap, Ben Youngs’ brace of sharp tries at the start of each half were ultimately the decisive thrusts that pierced the hearts not just of Italy but all the other Super Saturday contenders.
There was also a popular try for Jamie George, making his 50th appearance for his country, but it took until the 67th minute for the alert Tom Curry to steal down the blindside for the crucial bonus point try that was England’s major requirement. Eddie Jones’s team have played better but, further bolstered by a fifth score from Henry Slade with eight minutes left, they managed to do just enough.
While the game was distinctly scrappy at times, the visitors’s fast start was also important. The Italian pack found themselves under huge pressure at the first scrum, Curry made an early menace of himself at the breakdown and within five minutes there was already a try on the board. Nice hands from Mako Vunipola put Farrell into a big hole and the England captain timed his inside ball perfectly on the 22 to put Youngs over unopposed.
There was no flamboyant dive, partly because Youngs is a modest man and partly because England still had plenty more work to do. A Farrell penalty swiftly extended the lead to 10-0 but there was always the risk of the game becoming too loose too soon and the bounce of a ball altering the mathematical equation.
Sure enough Kyle Sinckler tried to flick on a pass from Anthony Watson, the ball fell loose and Carlo Canna fed a rampaging Jake Polledri, who did superbly to reach the left corner.
After all England’s promising early efforts it meant they entered the second quarter a mere five points in front, with a further blow imminent. Jonny Hill has had an outstanding few weeks with Exeter but just over 20 minutes into his long-awaited Test debut he found himself being directed to the sin-bin for a clumsy challenge at a ruck that made contact with an Italian head.
The absence of a warm-up game, after the cancellation of last Sunday’s Barbarians fixture, had also made life slightly trickier for the management and Italy, sensing a chance to make an impression, kept on coming. This is a young side who just need a couple of decent results to boost their confidence and England, still down to 14 men, found themselves increasingly stuck in their own half.
A purposeful lineout drive was held up over the England line and there was enough irritable pushing and shoving between the two sets of forwards to underline that Italy were more than keen to make life awkward for their guests.
When an attacking English maul was also frustrated, with Polledri sent to the sin-bin, Billy Vunipola dipped a frustrated shoulder towards Sebastian Negri, prompting a further outbreak of manbags, to borrow the phrase from ITV’s droll summariser David Flatman.
Only desperate late covering from George Furbank and Jonny May prevented the home replacement Federico Mori from drawing his side level and England returned to the dressing room with plenty to discuss.
Their kicking improved markedly in the second half but, generally, they tend to look much more threatening when they keep the ball in hand, run hard and put pressure on the opposition at close quarters.
They were suitably grateful, then, when inside a minute of the restart, Hill stretched out a telescopic arm to effect a partial charge down and give his team useful field position. Italy were expecting Youngs to spread it right but the scrum-half ducked inside Danilo Fischetti and jinked past the rest of the cover to score the kind of poacher’s try of which any No 9 would have been proud.
With Polledri still sitting on the sidelines, it finally gave England a modicum of breathing space. The question was whether they could crank things up further and George’s 51st-minute score, not initially awarded because the referee was confused between the tryline and the edge of a sponsor’s logo in the in-goal area, rewarded a driven maul featuring both backs and forwards.
Curry and Slade both exploited the increasing gaps in the Italian defence and there were also precious first caps to celebrate for Ollie Thorley, Ollie Lawrence and Tom Dunn. Their weekend was special even before the final whistle blew in Paris.