England head coach Eddie Jones admits his side paid the price for a lack of preparation in a “rusty” opening against Italy but praised his team’s second-half response.
Scrum half Ben Youngs, on his 100th appearance, set them on their way with a fifth-minute try, however England could only labour to a 10-5 halftime lead. Unlike the other Six Nations teams, England were denied a warm-up to the final round of matches after their game against the Barbarians was cancelled due to breaches of the Covid-19 protocol.
Jones believes that lack of preparation showed in a first half in which debutant Jonny Hill was yellow carded in a fractious, disjointed display.
“We lost control for 20 minutes in the first half,” Jones said. “I think we got seduced by scoreboard pressure, got distracted by what the opposition and the referee were doing and lost our composure a little bit. Definitely (we were rusty). As much as we like to train as well as we can there’s no substitute for a game. We had to battle for a while there but the application and composure of the leaders was really good.”
Youngs’ excellent individual try in the second half seemed to settle England’s nerves. Further tries from Jamie George, on his 50th appearance, Tom Curry and Henry Slade secured the bonus point to increase the tension ahead of France v Ireland. In the build-up to the trip to Rome, Jones had stated that he wanted to give the nation a lift at a time when it is about to enter a second lockdown. It is debatable whether the overall performance did that, but the second half at least gained Jones’ seal of approval.
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“I thought our response in the second half was outstanding,” Jones said. “In the end it was our first game together, we’ve had two training runs so I’m really pleased with how the side stuck at it. We tried to do that (put smiles on faces). We certainly tried to play with a lot of passion and intent. I hope the fans at home enjoyed the game and feel a little bit better about themselves because we’re going to go through another tough period, aren’t we? If we are allowed to continue to play international rugby, which we’re hopeful of we have to make sure we do everything we can to help society.”
Four England players made debuts with Ollie Lawrence, Tom Dunn and Ollie Thorley coming off the bench while Hill impressed in spite of his sin-binning. Yet the biggest positive came in the form of centurion Youngs’ two-try, man-of-the-match performance.
“It’s always nice for a player to play well in their 100th game,” Jones said. “He scored a couple of nice tries, one a beautiful traditional halfback try backing up the centre of the field and another off some good go-forward ball. He’ll feel good about this game, the whole team feels good about him getting to 100 caps and now we want him to go on and get to 150. It’s a massive achievement and we’re so proud of him.”
Youngs received a golden cap as well as an engraved watch in a pre-match presentation from his teammates, however the 31-year-old is not content to rest on his laurels and will chase Jones’ target of 150 caps. “I’m up for it, absolutely,” Youngs said.
“All the hard work allows me to get the privilege for running out on a Saturday and that will never change. I will be back out on Monday on the grind, it's a great milestone, but certainly not one that will make me take my foot off the gas. I have had some unbelievable messages, people getting in touch from ex players, teammates, guys I have played against from other countries for years - that means the most to me as they know how hard it is to achieve it and getting that recognition from those boys means a lot.”
Owen Farrell, who contributed nine points with the boot yesterday, was equally complimentary of England's milestone maker. "To be the age that he is, still so young and get 100 caps, only the second ever, that's a massive achievement, he should be really proud," he said.