ROME, February 15- Disjointed England held off a spirited Italy to win 17-12 at the Stadio Flaminio here in their Six Nations clash on Sunday as the hosts came as close as ever to a first victory against their opponents.
Although England kept alive their hopes of a first Grand Slam and championship since 2003, it was the Italians who emerged with greatest credit from a tight game that kept fans in the packed stadium on the edge of their seats right to the final whistle.
That was in no small part thanks to an uncharacteristically erratic kicking performance from Jonny Wilkinson, who missed two penalties and a conversion, all from good positions.
However, England captain Steve Borthwick said that he thought England had been impressive.
"We said from the outset that we wanted to win every match, and we have won the first two," said the 30-year-old lock, whose position as captain was under threat before manager Martin Johnson re-appointed him a week before the opening match.
"Preferably one likes to win by large margins but Italy are a tough side and we said during the week that it would be a tough match.
"I think we played some outstanding rugby. The breaks by Ugo Monye and Delon Armitage down the flanks were fantastic. We can take a lot of positives out of this (heading towards their next match in a fortnight at home to Ireland)," added Borthwick, who was winning his 55th cap.
Much talk in the Italy camp before kick-off had been about improving the line-out which malfunctioned so badly against Ireland last week but it seemed lessons hadn’t been learnt on 10 minutes as they lost a throw in their own 22 and then gave away a penalty, which Wilkinson duly slotted over.
However, just two minutes later Mirco Bergamasco kicked the hosts level after Nick Easter was penalised for not releasing in the tackle.
Although the game resembled ping-pong at times, England did make a couple of good breaks after keeping the ball in hand and Gonzalo Garcia made a try-saving tackle on Ugo Monye after Mark Cueto had come in off the right wing to make a break before releasing his fellow winger down the left.
Wilkinson’s radar then went askew as he came up short with a penalty from just inside the Italy half and then sliced wide of the near post from inside the 22.
Bergamasco also missed a kick from wide right before Quintin Geldenhuys hauled down Matthew Tait 10 yards out after another promising England attack.
Italy took the lead on 35 minutes after winning quick line-out ball in England’s 22 and spreading it wide before winning the penalty that Bergamasco converted.
But on the stroke of half-time Riki Flutey scythed through the Italy defence before a last ditch tackle from Craig Gower and then Martin Castrogiovanni had to stop Lewis Moody 10 yards out but Italy gave away a penalty allowing Wilkinson to kick England level at the break and pass the 500 point mark in the Six Nations.
Italy’s hopes took a huge hit six minutes after the restart as Andrea Masi missed a tackle on Monye on the left, allowing him to feed the ball inside to Delon Armitage who then put it back out wide for Tait to streak home but incredibly Wilkinson missed the conversion.
And Italy hit self-destruct again on 59 minutes as Castrogiovanni smothered the ball in a ruck five yards from the Italy line, giving away a penalty and earning a yellow card.
Wilkinson couldn’t miss this one and England led 14-6 with a numerical advantage for 10 minutes.
But they failed to exploit that and Bergamasco kicked a penalty while Italy had 14 men and then just after Castrogiovanni came back on another Bergamasco penalty made it 12-14 with just eight minutes left.
But ultimately Italy did not have the invention to make a decisive break and Wilkinson got in the pocket to knock over a drop goal with his right foot to give the visitors some breathing space five minutes from time.