England got their Guinness Six Nations campaign up and running a week later than intended, as they beat a battling Italy 41-18 at Twickenham.
England tries: Hill, Watson (2), May, Willis, Daly
England conversions: Farrell (4)
England penalties: Farrell
Italy tries: Ioane, Allan
Italy conversions: Allan
Italy penalties: Garbisi (2)
Jonny May accelerated clear as England’s second-highest try-scorer with a stunning finish as Italy fell to a 41-18 Guinness Six Nations defeat at Twickenham.
May plundered his 32nd international touch down on the stroke of half-time by leaping for the whitewash and grounding the ball from a mid-air horizontal position.
It was a remarkable moment of skill and ingenuity from one of the game’s most ruthless finishers, whose acrobatics swept him over a despairing tackle by Luca Sperandio and up one place in England’s all-time try-scoring charts.
Having moved above Ben Cohen and Will Greenwood into clear second, Rory Underwood’s total of 49 is the last remaining target.
Victory came at the cost of a sickening injury suffered by Jack Willis, whose left knee was damaged when he was cleared out at a ruck. Just moments earlier the replacement flanker had scored the fifth of England’s six tries.
A week after Scotland had claimed their first win at Twickenham since 1983, the most experienced England team of all time began the process of rebuilding their title defence with a predictably comprehensive triumph against the Six Nations’ weakest opposition.
Anthony Watson ran in two tries while Jonny Hill and Elliot Daly also crossed, but at times their play was scrappy and unconvincing, partly the result of Italy’s stubborn resistance and occasional flourishes in attack.
The Azzurri’s moments of promise were insufficient to prevent a 29th successive loss in the Six Nations, although on this occasion they were competitive if comprehensive losers.
Memories of the Calcutta Cup debacle came rushing back as England conceded two early penalties before leaking a try after only 144 seconds as Monty Ioane capitalised on some sluggish defending to race in.
They had been caught cold by Italy’s tempo with Watson and Daly at fault, but Owen Farrell settled nerves with a penalty as the setback made way for a spell of red rose dominance.
A short-range free-kick saw the ball retained in the pack and eventually the Azzurri cracked before the succession of pick and goes with Hill touching down.
Fly-half Paolo Garbisi was off the mark with a penalty that levelled the score and while they were still in the fight, territory and possession were slipping away at an alarming rate.
England’s back three were dwarfing their contribution against Scotland, with Watson the most effective carrier, and the Bath wing’s side-step and injection of pace swept him over in the 26th minute.
But for greater accuracy, Italy would have been in as they poured forward from a line-out as they impressively fought their way back into contention.
England ended the half strongly, however, and were rewarded when Sperandio went walkabout in defence and May crossed with a spectacular try that saw him leap into the corner.
Garbisi opened the second half with a penalty as Italy, helped by some mistakes from the home side, played with pace and intent exemplified by two eye-catching breaks.
It was therefore a blow when their best spell was ended by an ill-advised Garbisi pass that was cleverly picked off by Watson, who galloped 80 metres to score his second try.
Again Italy were stubbornly holding their own only to fall to England’s smarter thinking, caught unawares during a period of niggle and when camped on their line, Willis drove over.
Willis’ celebrations at scoring his second try were cruelly muted shortly afterwards when his leg twisted during a clear-out, causing an awful injury to his left knee that saw him driven from the pitch on the medical cart.
After a lengthy delay to treat Willis, England were caught cold as Tommaso Allan raced in from a scrum but Daly replied quickly thanks to a turnover by Maro Itoje, completing the rout.
After bouncing back from last weekend’s opening defeat to Scotland, man of the match Kyle Sinckler was pleased England were moving in the right direction.
Sinckler told ITV: "I think it was a step in the right direction. Our intent was a lot better today, especially up front.
"We probably didn’t get the rewards we wanted but in terms of intent – and showing how much it means for us playing for our country – I think it was a step in the right direction and we’re looking forward to the next game."
Captain Owen Farrell was delighted England were back to playing to their best.
He told ITV: "We’re probably back to being us.
"It’s not the perfect performance or the best performance we’ve ever had but in terms of the feeling, the energy, the intent – that felt back to us."
Following the Twickenham defeat to the Scots, Farrell said the squad pushed hard in training and let their rugby do the talking on the pitch.
On what improved their performance, he added: “Some honest conversations that we had with ourselves during the week and the excitement to get out onto the training pitch to put things right.
"And the way that we built up showed in the way that we played."
Farrell felt England’s intent to defeat Italy shone through after they went behind early on.
He added: "I thought we attacked the game.
"Obviously, they had an advantage to move the ball and ended up scoring a try which was probably a bit of over-eagerness but then, from that, I thought our intent was brilliant.
"We moved the ball, we got in behind them. Probably not everything went our way but we stuck at it and that’s the way that the game ended up going our way."