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By Jack Massie on 12.2.2024

‘Charge-Down Charlie’ Breaks the Ice in Rome


The first Six Nations match of the weekend found a recently reinvented England side embarking on their first pilgrimage to Rome’s snow-laden Stadio Olimpico, still in search of redemption for the on-field errors (and off-field excesses) of last year’s World Cup campaign. Much has been made of caretaker coach Stuart Lancaster’s attempt to transfuse new blood into English rubgy’s ageing body and the Italians were no doubt prepared to prey on England’s weakened condition.

Heavy snowfall clearly hadn’t discouraged a record crowd from trekking to the Italian capital, but both sides found the Stadio Olimpico pitch a difficult theatre on which to operate, and as the game progressed neither side appeared to possess the necessary spark or flair to thaw the icy terrain. Only after twenty six minutes of error strewn English lineouts and stubbornly contested scrummages did the scoring open, with Owen Farrell skilfully guiding two penalty kicks between the posts to grant England a fairly well fought 6-0 lead.

In response, the Azzurri proceeded to panic their opponents with persistent offensive pressure. England reacted clumsily to an intrusive Tomasso Benvenuti grubber kick, and an unfortunate Ben Foden ricochet lead the ball into Giovanbattista Venditti’s grateful grasp, leaving the Italian centre conveniently poised to bundle over the simplest of tries.

Kris Burton’s failed conversion allowed England to retain a slim lead, but their advantage was carelessly protected, and moments after play restarted, 21 year old Benvenuti sprinted from halfway to score a second Italian try, having intercepted an ill-advised offload from full back Foden.

Thus England found themselves trailing by nine points, in a game that offered little opportunity for ambitious, attacking rugby. With a change in approach needed, England threw caution to the bitter Roman wind, and opted to adopt a more urgent manner of play. The risk paid off, and Charlie Hodgson was rewarded for his fierce commitment when the fly-half chased down a clearing kick, enabling the veteran Saracen to deliver England’s first try of the match, and his second in successive fixtures.

The fresh-faced Farrell successfully converted the penalty, now sporting an extra-large head bandage that gave the peculiar impression that he’d had a rummage through his daddy’s first aid kit prior to kick off. Fortunately for England, there’s not a sniff of schoolboy about Farrell’s kicking ability, and his unwavering precision was utilised twice more, as England took advantage of two penalties to seize a four point lead.

Alas for Italy, Tobias Botes’ boot proved to be far less efficient, and the Azzurri’s climatic surges for victory were undermined by two embarrassingly executed penalty kicks. Nonetheless, with the score at 19-15, a revitalised England had earned their gritty comeback.

The England school of old had an imprudent habit of revelling in former glories. By contrast, Stuart Lancaster’s new look squad know that they’ll have to scrap with the former Six Nations whipping boys to earn their stripes.

With only two weeks recovery time until England face Wales at Twickenham, it remains to be seen whether Lancaster will be able to anaesthetise the sting of a clinical Welsh attack.


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