|Italy: (5) 5|
|England: (10) 34|
|Tries: Youngs 2, George, Curry, Slade Pens: Farrell Cons: Farrell 3|
England put themselves in prime position to win the Six Nations with a laboured bonus-point win against Italy.
Ben Youngs – celebrating his 100th cap – scored the opening try, before Kyle Sinckler’s fumble gave Jake Polledri the chance to hit back.
England came out with renewed intensity after the break and Youngs capitalised with his second score.
The visitors then found their rhythm, with 50-cap Jamie George, Tom Curry and Henry Slade all crossing.
England will have to wait until France v Ireland is completed to learn whether they have won a first Six Nations title since 2017.
Ireland will be crowned champions if they win with a bonus point or by more than six points in Paris.
If Ireland win by six points, the title is decided on tries scored.
At the moment both England and Ireland have scored 14 tries and if Ireland do not increase their total and both teams end up on the same points difference, the title will be shared.
France can claim the title with a bonus-point victory and a winning margin of 31 points or more.
England stutter in strange first half
As with so much sport in recent months, there was a strange air around the Stadio Olimpico as Ben Youngs ran out to celebrate his 100th cap in front of eerily empty stands, before players sang the anthems spaced out along the touchline.
It had been seven months since Eddie Jones’ side last played a match and just under a year since their World Cup final defeat, but England fans were quickly reassured by the familiar sight of their team inflicting a try on Italy in the first five minutes.
Owen Farrell darted through a gap in the Italian defence and found Youngs on the inside to give the centurion a fitting opening try, which the captain successfully converted.
Further comfort came as an Italian infringement at the breakdown gave England a penalty and Farrell opted to take an easy three points in front of the posts.
But then things turned upside down. A loose ball from Sinckler was claimed by Carlo Canna and he found Gloucester’s Jake Polledri, the number eight sprinting clear to dot down in the corner.
The momentum stayed with Italy as lock Jonny Hill’s England debut was marred by a trip to the sin-bin for a high tackle on wing Edoardo Padovani.
England repeatedly opted to kick rather than run the ball but this only seemed to work in Italy’s favour as they threatened to score from a line-out in the corner before Hill returned to help win a scrum penalty for his side.
It looked as if the visitors might go into the dressing room with their heads held high but a try-scoring opportunity was ended as Polledri came into their maul at the side, leading to a yellow card for the number eight.
Renewed England surge ahead after the break
England came out looking much sharper in the second half and were almost immediately rewarded by Youngs’ try.
The scrum-half sent a dummy pass from the base of a ruck and stepped round prop Danilo Fischetti, sprinting through the gap and across the tryline.
It was Maro Itoje who led the second-half charge and, after Wasps full-back Matteo Minozzi left the field with a bleeding nose after clashing heads with Jonny May, the lock claimed the ball in a line-out to set up George’s try in a maul.
England had three of the four tries needed for the bonus point that is crucial to their title hopes but their momentum stalled momentarily.
Just after Gloucester wing Ollie Thorley came on for his debut, flanker Curry took on the role of scrum-half with Youngs on the floor at the breakdown.
The forward picked up the ball from the base of the ruck to run down the touchline on the blind-side and score, but Farrell missed the conversion and the chance at two points which could yet prove crucial in England’s title bid.
The England captain – playing in his first match since September because of a ban for a high tackle – redeemed himself as his grubber kick was chased by Ben Earl, who twisted on the floor and popped the ball up for Slade to score.
However, he did miss a second conversion and the chance to put more scoreboard pressure on Ireland and France, leaving England with a nervous wait ahead.
Man of the match: Ben Youngs
‘We knew we’d get there in the end’ – what they said
England’s man of the match Youngs: “We always thought it was going to be a grinding down process.”We got a bit out-enthused in the first half, we camped on our own line for a long time. We couldn’t quite get out and maybe with that yellow card [for Jonny Hill], we couldn’t shake that off.
“But whatever it may be, we knew that if we stuck to it we’d get there in the end and that was the most important thing that we did.”
Former England scrum-half Matt Dawson
I think England are set to win the Championship. France will probably just about have enough to beat Ireland.You do have to think about the mindset though, because France are really going to have to chase it, which might open it up for Ireland.
Italy: Minozzi; Padovani, Morisi, Canna, Bellini; Garbisi, Violi; Fischetti, Bigi (capt), Zilocchi, Lazzaroni, Cannone, Negri, Steyn, Polledri.
Replacements: Lucchesi, Ferrari, Ceccarelli, Sisi, Meyer, Mbanda, Palazzani, Mori.
England: Furbank; Watson, Joseph, Slade, May; Farrell (capt), Youngs; M Vunipola, George, Sinckler, Itoje, Hill, Curry, Underhill, B Vunipola.
Replacements: Dunn, Genge, Stuart, Ewels, Earl, Robson, Lawrence, Thorley.
Referee: Pascal Gauzere