England 47 Italy 17: Lancaster adds to armoury in grand slam quest

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ENCOURAGINGLY, given this is a World Cup year after all, it seems Stuart Lancaster can currently do no wrong.

Even the one brief point in Saturday’s victory over Italy where some thought the England coach, fresh from that gargantuan opening Six Nations win in Cardiff, may have blundered, it actually emerged to be a master-stroke.

England's Jonathan Joseph scores their second try against Italy

England's Jonathan Joseph scores their second try against Italy

When Mike Brown was stretchered off after the brave full-back took a nasty bang to his head denying quick-starting Italy a certain second try in the 12th minute, there was no like-for-like replacement on the bench.

However, Danny Cipriani, the adaptable and revitalised Sale Sharks fly-half looking to play his first game in the tournament since 2008, certainly looked a good option.

Yet Lancaster instead reshuffled almost his entire back division – inside centre Billy Twelvetrees came on to join Luther Burrell, another No 12, in midfield, and outside centre, the star against Wales, was shunted to the flank all to facilitate winger Anthony Watson’s switch to replace Brown.

It all seemed rather needless especially when the vast majority of the Twickenham crowd arrived, in particular, to see Joseph, the elegant and balanced runner, recreate some of that magic he had done when scoring in Wales.

Now on the wing, the 23-year-old was set to be starved of playing his natural game while two similar-style centres got first dabs. Nevertheless, it proved a hugely successful tactical decision for a number of reasons.

Firstly, it did not douse Joseph’s strike potential given the Bath player came inside to score two wonderful tries, one in each half, that should confirm his place somewhere in Lancaster’s side for the foreseeable future.

Secondly, Burrell and Twelvetrees once more proved their effectiveness as a partnership, especially in defence where the latter is becoming a key player over the last two weeks in initiating turnover ball.

Furthermore, Watson showed he could fill in efficiently at the back although, admittedly, Alex Goode will still be favourite to replace Brown in Dublin in 13 days’ time if the Harlequin does not show adequate recovery from his concussion.

All of a sudden the former Leeds Tykes director of rugby is armed with so many more potential weapons as they look to chase that elusive grand slam.

It cannot be forgotten that Joseph only really got his opportunity in this season’s competition due to the litany of injury problems in England’s midfield; Brad Barritt, Kyle Eastmond and Manu Tuilagi all absent.

But now, the midfield crisis has morphed into the midfield conundrum of a positive nature; Lancaster has vast options, so much so that Tuilagi – always deemed a certainty when fit – could be twitching a little as he prepares for his return to fitness.

One thing is for sure, the likelihood of rugby league convert Sam Burgess gatecrashing the World Cup squad in seven months’ time has reduced massively.

Of course, it would be folly to read too much into such a performance against Italy, who have now played England 21 times and lost every encounter.

But the hosts have struggled in the past to truly dismiss the Azzurri – indeed they led just 18-10 after 54 minutes on Saturday – so doing that with such aplomb here is another reason for optimism.

Ben Youngs’s opportunistic try from a quick-tap penalty started the points avalanche before a lovely play from George Ford sent Joseph clear for his second. Cipriani then scored with his first touch soon after and replacement forward Nick Easter, another recalled player, finished things off.

No 8 Billy Vunipola, so impotent in the autumn internationals, revelled for a second game running, rumbling over in the first half from a lineout, and his power will be key in Dublin.

Granted, there are issues still, not least with their slow start, England going behind to an early try from Sergio Parisse, the excellent Italy captain who also scored at the death. Lancaster would be alarmed, too, with the manner in which Luca Morisi, a constant threat in midfield, cut them open for the visitors’ classy second try after the break.

But, in many ways, there was as much to be heartened by from this as there was in Cardiff.

Dublin next. Further progress and a first grand slam since 2003 will be expected. 
And we all know what happened later that year.

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 (Bisgni 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: J Lacey (IRFU).