After 24 in succession, England victories over Italy could be defined as something of a formality.
However, this year’s Six Nations opener at the Stadio Olimpico was far from it as the reigning champions’ defensive frailties were exposed by a country determined to maintain their position in the tournament.
The English quality eventually told, with a flurry of late tries painting a picture the Italians would be proud of.
However, it was far from a masterpiece and one which will have left head coach Eddie Jones with plenty to ponder ahead of bigger challenges over the next two months.
One concern will be a potential tournament-ending injury to scrum-half Ben Youngs, who was forced from the field after 20 minutes as his knee swivelled against him when passing from the base of a ruck.
Youngs is the latest option to fall towards the medical staff and, ahead of far greater opponents, the English coach will have concern over the ease his defence was cut open by hopeful Italian breaks.
Jones, however, can be excited by the performance of Exeter Chiefs No 8 Sam Simmonds, who took his chance with two powerful scoring runs, and the burgeoning talents of winger Anthony Watson, who produced two world class finishes in the first 10 minutes.
The Italian squad had posed for a squad photo at the Colosseum in the run up to the tournament to promote their hopes of avoiding the wooden spoon for a third successive year.
But the home support still recognise the development of the sport despite not witnessing a win at Olympic Stadium in 13 matches, since surprising Ireland in March 2013. Conor O’Shea’s side have only one solitary win in their last 13 games – a 19-10 win over Fiji in November, but provided a glimpse of a gladiatorial spirit missing from their last two campaigns.
This performance – for 60 minutes at least – will have gone a short way to hold off the Georgian movement snapping at the Italian heels to replace them in the annual competition.
Nevertheless, the scoreline will make upsetting reading to a nation struggling to cope with a first omission from the football World Cup later this year.
A solitary white cloud had positioned itself above the Stadio Olimpico on a breezeless, sun-kissed winter’s day in the Italian capital.
Roared on by the huge travelling support, England took little over two minutes to find their feet. The English pack gained a penalty from the first scrum, conceded following a spill by the usually reliant Mike Brown.
Owen Farrell’s long punt from the ensuing penalty brought possession inside the Italian 22 where Maro Itoje claimed the line-out and the English backs worked space for Watson on the opposing flank.
Watson’s electric pace down the right proved too much for the Italians again on 12 minutes as England were quick to brush off the disappointment of the Youngs blow. Replacement Danny Care collected from the base of the scrum and fed another swift English attack, with Watson beating three blue shirts before an excellent touchdown in the corner.
Italy’s moment came shortly after the quarter mark when space opened down the English right and, with a penalty advantage, the hosts worked phases across the field for Tommaso Benvenuti to finish off a welcome try, converted by club team-mate Tomasso Allan. It was a score that gave Italy encouragement to attack England’s backs, although the visitors soon restored a 10-point cushion as Farrell surged through to score a self-converted try.
As good as England were going forward, problems were exposed in defence. And Italy shaved a further three points back before the interval courtesy of Allan’s boot after another venture into England territory.
Openings at both ends continued to surface after the break with try claims turned down either side of a successive Farrell penalty.
Watson had spilled his chance for his hat-trick before Italy’s Tomasso Boni had his celebrations cut short due to a forward pass and obstruction on the English 22.
When Simmonds secured the English bonus point with an arrowed run, you could have been forgiven for thinking the Italian fight would cease.
But the hosts exposed the English defensive weakness again as Mattia Bellini squeezed home with millimetres between his knee and the whitewash in the left-hand corner.
Eventually, tiredness began to show in the home ranks and George Ford finished off another Farrell break before Simmonds stole in for his second.
Replacement Jack Nowell followed his Exeter Chiefs teammate and added the final layer of gloss as he dived over in the corner for England’s seventh try, a third unconverted by Farrell, with two minutes remaining.