Six Nations Game 6 - Italy vs England (19-23)
England fans can be forgiven for thinking there was a certain amount of déjà vu this weekend. For the second game running, the Red Rose boys looked promising, even impressive in the first 40 minutes, but seemed to go to pieces in the second half. Thankfully this time the result was different.
Jonny Wilkinson [right] initially appeared to be on song when he made a lovely chip ahead, caught a kind bounce and flipped a pass out of the back of his hand to Paul Sackey, who ran in for a score in the first couple of minutes. Wilkinson added the extras in England were ahead 0-7. Italy replied after five minutes with a penatly struck by David Bortolussi, and another at 12 minutes, pulling the hosts back to 6-7.
Around the quarter hour, Jamie Noon charged down a Bortolussi kick, passed to Wilkinson who offloaded to Toby Flood, who took a flamboyant dive in the corner. The all-newcastle midfield were firing well together. Jonny's conversion took him to 1,000 points in an England shirt and England to a 6-14 lead.
England managed another two penalties before the break, both from the boot of Wilkinson, giving them a 14-point cushion at 6-20. But as with last week, England lost the plot in the second half. Whatever Brian Ashton had said to them in the dressing room at half time, I wish he hadn't bothered!
Italy managed the lion's share of possession and territory in the second half, and two more pentalties for the Azzurri kept them in touch with England, 12-20. Then Ashton decided to bring on some replacements, and the team seemed to loose even more cohesion.
Richard Wigglesworth [left] was given his first cap at Scrum Half. And Danny Cipriani came on, only to have a clearance kick charged down by Simon Picone who then flew half way up the pitch to score under the posts - more or less uncontested by England's defence. Bortolussi added the extra two points, pulling Italy back to 19-23.
So England's fans were left with a couple of nervous minutes before the whistle blew, and Italy were still pushing and praying for a last-minute miracle. It was their best result against England in the 14 tests the two countries have played.
An England this sloppy will be put to the sword by France next time round, especially as the game is in Paris. They really must learn to play like they did in the first half - for the whole 80 minutes - or they will be heading for another pasting.