DESPITE playing out of position for much of this contest, the gilded Jonathan Joseph surely cemented his place in Stuart Lancaster’s World Cup plans today with a devastating two-try performance as England routed Italy in the Six Nations.
The silky centre, whose great footwork saw him score a crucial try during the outstanding win at Cardiff last Friday, was at it again this afternoon with yet more sublime finishing.
He had been forced onto the wing following an early concussion to full-back Mike Brown prompted a backline reshuffle at Twickenham.
Yet the Bath man - promoted to Lancaster’s midfield for this tournament only due to a raft of injuries - came inside to produce more mesmerising feet to leave Italy defenders in their wake during the first half.
He added another sublime finish as the hosts eased clear in the second period to stay on course for a potential Grand Slam and, indeed, rugby league convert Sam Burgess’ task of breaking into the World Cup squad this autumn has certainly just got far arduous.
England have now played Italy 21 times dating back to their first game in 1991 and won every one of those contests, remaining the only side yet to lose to the Azzurri in the Six Nations.
However, they only led 18-10 after 54 minutes following a testing opening quarter especially when there was a distinct air of after the Lord Mayor’s show to this encounter.
Given the grandeur of that stunning success in Cardiff last Friday, perhaps that was inevitable.
Granted, James Haskell, excellent in the England pack, stole a second line-out inside the opening couple of minutes to suggest the hosts may dominate but then Italy took a shock lead moments later when his side’s own line-out malfunctioned.
Classy centre Luca Morisi barged through some timid defence to act as a warning sign of what was to come and then the visitors cleverly exploited the short-side for Sergio Parisse to slip out of Anthony Watson’s tame tackle for the first of the captain’s brace.
Italy were bright early on and nearly scored again when their other centre Andrea Masi this time collected Kelly Haimona’s midfield chip.
Brown denied him but, in doing so, saw his head clash with the Italian’s hip and, after lengthy on-field treatment, was duly replaced by Billy Twelvetrees.
After all the furore over George North’s concussion in Wales last week, there was no doubting the England man would depart here, stretchered off with an injury which could leave him doubtful for their next game against Ireland, although he did re-emerge on the bench to warm applause midway through the second half.
It meant Joseph, though, was switched from outside centre to the wing, where Watson had been, and England were left with two inside centres in Luther Burrell and Twelvetrees.
Danny Cipriani, admittedly a fly-half by trade but having played as a full-back, would have been a more obvious choice as a straight swap, but it mattered little as Lancaster’s decision eventually proved fruitful.
England were let off, though, when lock George Fabio Biagi intercepted on halfway; any back would have made sure the mistake ended in seven points being conceded by the hosts but, as it was, the Italian lacked the pace to escape.
The hosts were relieved when Haimona failed to roll away after tackling Burrell and gifted George Ford an easy three points in the 20th minute.
Billy Vunipola then bundled over after a well-rehearsed line-out move pitted the Saracens No8 against scrum-half Edorado Gori.
The diminutive Italian seemed to have done just enough to thwart his opponent in the obvious mis-match but the video match official, somewhat controversially, deemed otherwise.
Ford could not convert from wide out but did improve after Joseph’s brilliant try in the 28th minute, possession garnered following a turnover from Chris Robshaw after Burrell and Twelvetrees held up their opponent.
However, the Bath man instigated the score all by himself as his fine footwork eluded Haimona and allowed him to sprint in from 45m showing all the poise and balance once more demonstrated when scoring in Cardiff.
Haimona missed one penalty and another from just inside his own half before the home side wasted a glorious opportunity to take control, Jonny May incredulously ignoring a three-on-one overlap after accepting Twelvetrees’ long pass only to slip at the critical moment.
Ford’s second penalty extended the lead to 18-5 early in the second period but the visitors showed their threat once again after a classy try.
Winger Leonardo Sarto’s daring chip and collect set up position and then the ball was moved wide to the always-dangerous Morisi who dissected two tiring forwards in midfield and then rounded Watson on a 40m surge.
Haimona missed the simple conversion attempt, however, and, instead, England responded, Ben Youngs showing speed of thought to take a quick tap penalty 5m out and exploit lax defending after the Italian scrum infringed.
Ford added the extras and then another penalty to before - perhaps realising his time to depart was coming - brilliantly creating space for Joseph to run in for his second try from 40m out.
Cipriani duly replaced Ford and, with his first touch in the Six Nations since 2008, scored a try of his own, supporting May who had advanced well down the left before cutting inside.
Veteran No8 Nick Easter, another player like Cipriani given a reprieve, crossed from a driving maul before Parisse got Italy a consolation, but it is England who move on to Dublin two weeks tomorrow in fine fettle.
England: Brown (Twelvetrees 13); Watson, Joseph, Burrell, May; Ford (Cipriani 63), B Youngs (Wigglesworth 67); Marler (M Vunipola 63), Hartley (T Youngs 59), Cole (Brookes 59), Attwood (Easter 51), Kruis, Haskell (Croft 63), Robshaw, B Vunipola.
Italy: McLean; Sarto (
Bisegni 72), Morisi, Masi, Vendititti; Haimona (Allan 71), Gori (Palazzani 71); De Marchi (Aguero 59), Ghiraldini (Manici 59), Castrogiovanni (Chistolini 59), Fabio Bagi, Bortolami (Furno 57), Minto, Bergamasco, Parisse.
Referee: John Lacey (IRFU)