In a scene reminiscent of the winter storms in the UK, wave after wave of Italian blue smashed itself against the rock-like white of English defence - but England stood firm to record their fourth win of the 2014 Six Nations.
Prior to the start of the Six Nations, England coach Gary Street said how grateful he was that the Italian team that beat Italy in 2013 and drove Ireland all the way never seemed to “turn up” against England. At Rovato today they did, but England still won 24-0.
Throughout most of the first half Italy dominated both possession and territory, the game being played almost entirely in the England half, and much of the time on or inside the England 22. But, despite all of this pressure England’s excellent defence held fast, breaking out to score two well-taken tries.
The first came on 14 minutes with Emily Scarratt breaking several missed tackles in a run down the right wing, ending with a perfect handoff to score in the corner.
Whenever England had ball in hand, and a hint of space, they looked very dangerous indeed.
Powerful England runners often took two or three tackles to be brought to ground and, 20 minutes after the first try, a breakthrough finally brought the second try, Danielle Waterman proving too powerful for the Italian defence, scoring her try under the posts, with Scarratt adding the conversion.
Italy continued to press, however, and nearly scored in the final minute of the half, the final pass to second-row Molic just failing to go to hand with the line beckoning. As a result England lead 12-0 at the break.
Overall the second half proved more even, with England opening the scoring early on from a lineout on the Italian line, Laura Keates picking up a loose ball and crashing over in the corner.
Italy continued to look a threat with their lineout in particular being faultless throughout the day – and it was from such a lineout, shortly after the Keates try, that they came closest to scoring, their maul being held up on the line by tenacious English defence.
It was now that the English bench came on, and the injection of fresh legs on a warm Italian spring afternoon changed the pattern of the game.
Now it was all Italy defending and, with a quarter of the game still to go, a significant increase in the English lead looked inevitable. But despite some obviously tired bodies, Italy held firm with England repeatedly crossing the line and being held up, and players such as Furlan – who was everywhere in this game – putting in some monstrous hits.
Even when England did finally cross the line, Reed found putting the ball down extremely difficult, the referee initially ruling that Arrighetti’s last ditch diving tackle and hold – worthy of a some impressive points in judo – had held Reed up, before a word with the touchjudge revealed that Reed had just managed to touch the ball to the grass.
A brilliant kick from the touchline by Scarratt added the extra points, but Italy were not finished and a blue wave continued to smash against the cliff-face of English defiance right until the final whistle.
And so England finish in second place in the 2014 championship.
There will be some inevitable disappointment with that final position, but in truth what was clear this year is how much the leading teams in the Six Nations have caught up with England since their last title win in 2012. T
ake away home advantage, and there now seems to be very little to choose between England, France and Ireland – something that makes both the World Cup and the 2015 Six Nations mouth watering prospects.
For Italy too there will have been some satisfaction, despite heavy defeats in the final two games. Fourth place in the Six Nations is their best finish ever, and is a position they are likely get used to if they continue to play as well as they did in 2014.
Italy: Furlan, Veronese, Cioffi, Stefan, Sillari, Rigoni, Barattin, Gaudino, Arrighetti, Este, Trevisan, Molic, Ferrari, Bettoni, Coulibaly.
Replacements: Ballarini, Cammarano, Campanini, Pantarotto, Ruzza, Bruno, Magatti, Buongiorno.
England: Waterman, Merchant, Scarratt, Reed, Brennan, Large, Hunt, Essex, Alphonsi, Hunter, Taylor, Mc Gilchrist, Keates, Fleetwood, Clark.
Replacements: Foy, Purdy, Hemming, Gallagher, Packer, Gulliver, McLean, Thompson.
Referee: Marlize Jordaan (SA)
Assistant Referees. Guastini e De Carlini (Italia)
4th Assistant: Ballardini.