Ashton leads way as England charge picks up pace
It was going to be tough, England players and coaches had assured us all week.
Never mind those turning up at Twickenham expecting the sort of try-fest that marked encounters between the countries in the first half-dozen years of the Six Nations.
Martin Johnson was unequivocal. Substance over style was the mantra. The number one priority was to win. Second? No serious injuries. Only then would he consider if it was a good game or not.
With a try on the board with barely two minutes on the clock and three more by half-time, the first objective was achieved by the interval. Only bumps and bruises were reported post-match.
Which left Johnson in unfamiliar territory after his effervescent troops profited royally from some hapless Italian defence and their own ambition to plunder eight tries in all, second only to the 10 they put past the Azzurri in a record 80-point thrashing in 2001.
"We are not used to having big leads," he reflected. "Hopefully it is a problem we can get used to."
With Chris Ashton around, he may have to.
Ashton is the first England player to score four tries in a Five/Six Nations match since 1914 - photo: AFP
Austin Healey, Will Greenwood, Jason Robinson, Mark Cueto and Jamie Noon had all scored three tries for England in a Six Nations match, but Ashton became the first to claim four, and has already equalled the previous best total of six for an entire campaign shared by Greenwood and Welsh wizard Shane Williams.
The 23-year-old Wiganer also became the first Englishman to score four tries in the Championship since Ronnie Poulton against France in 1914. His quartet here brought his tally to nine in his first nine Tests. England, it is fair to say, have a bona-fide superstar on their hands.
"He is a predator, isn't he?" remarked Johnson. "He gets in the right places and scores tries. He runs very smart lines, popping up on the inside, and he has really invigorated our back three, Mark [Cueto] in particular. It was good he got a try as well - we can stop talking about that now."
Cueto started his international career with 15 tries in his first 28 Tests, but had gone try-less in his last 18 before Saturday. He looked like a man on a mission from the start and when he burst onto Toby Flood's superbly-timed inside pass after half an hour and smashed through Luciano Orquera's attempted tackle to finally end his drought, his elation was obvious.
Mobbed by exultant team-mates, who appreciate his contribution goes way beyond scoring tries, a grinning Cueto hurled the ball into the South Stand by way of celebration.
"He has been very upset by that," said Ashton. "Hopefully he will be a happier man now."
The grin has barely left Ashton's face all week either, and he has revelled in the superficial controversy generated by his 'swallow dive' celebration against Wales. He couldn't resist it again here, repeating it after his first and last tries.
"I knew he would do that one at the end," said Johnson, who joked that even though he had emptied his bench he was tempted to put Ashton's number up as a warning. "I said to him afterwards 'that was an interesting way to end your career'".
Lest anyone thought he might be serious, the manager added: "These guys are there to enjoy themselves a bit as well. They are allowed to have fun."
Once Flood, who enjoyed another outstanding game, had ended two minutes of Italian pressure with the first of several line breaks, the sight of Ashton on his inside shoulder ensured the outcome was never in doubt once the pass was delivered.
His second and third tries were those of a classic poacher, twisting out of Mirco Bergamasco's tackle after taking an offload from Shontayne Hape close to the line, and then capitalising on a Matt Banahan burst to pick up and dive over from a metre out.
His final effort again owed much to Banahan, who enjoyed a productive half-hour after replacing Cueto.
"I am just really desperate to scores tries," said Ashton afterwards, as if anyone doubted it. "I find myself doing anything to get a try."
Italy undoubtedly made England's job easier with some dismal one-on-one tackling - "I certainly didn't expect us to play that poorly," said a visibly angry coach Nick Mallett - and a woeful line-out that saw England pilfer five of their throws.
The hosts' own set-piece was again a tower of strength, with a 100% success rate on their 12 throws.
There were so few scrums that debutant prop Alex Corbisiero barely had the opportunity to show his mettle against Martin Castrogiovanni, who was emblematic of Italy's miserable afternoon, getting himself sin-binned for preventing a quick penalty being taken.
But the youngest front row England had ever fielded certainly enjoyed themselves in the loose, along with the rest of a team transformed and liberated.
As impressive as the first half was, it could have been twice as good. England scored four good tries, including one for captain Mike Tindall, but wasted four more opportunities after breaching the first line of Italian defence.
After eight minutes, Tindall was collared five metres short of the left corner, and the move broke down. At the end of the first quarter England lost patience in the Italian 22, and Nick Easter conceded a silly penalty. A minute later after another Flood break and a delightful Dan Cole dummy and dart up the left, the attack came a cropper when Bergamasco intercepted Easter's pass with an overlap beckoning on the right. Just before the break, Tindall burst through with Cueto up in support, but appeared to panic and run towards the winger before ramming a pass into his chest.
With the game won at half-time, the second period could easily have fallen flat, particularly when Johnson sent on five replacements inside the first 15 minutes, including the removal of Ben Youngs and Flood, their orchestrators in chief.
But the first of several rousing renditions of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" was the precursor to Ashton's second try, and Danny Care and James Haskell also helped themselves to easy scores against a demoralised defence before Ashton, appropriately, had the final say.
No-one was pretending the visit of France in a fortnight will follow anything like the same pattern, but for now England can bask in an Italian job very well done.
"Did we think we would get that many points?" reflected Johnson. "Probably not, but it was a pretty decent performance.
"Do we have to be better in two weeks? Yes, of course we do. We won't get the amount of opportunities to score tries we did today. We have to control the ball a bit better at times."
Two down, three to go. England's Grand Slam bandwagon is on a roll.