England secured a hard-fought bonus point in their 34-5 victory over Italy to secure the 2020 Six Nations Championship, with Ireland falling short in their need for a bonus-point victory over France in Paris as the hosts recorded a comprehensive victory to finish runners-up.
Ireland knew they required a four-try win, a seven-point victory or a six-point victory with a try against France in the final game of the tournament to beat England to the title, while France themselves were tasked with defeating the Irish by an unlikely 31 points if they were to emerge victorious .
However, a double from Ben Youngs on his 100th appearance for his country helped England to slowly build a gap over a fiery Italian side, with Jamie George also scoring on his 50th cap to edge them closer towards victory.
Italy remained stubborn in not letting England away thanks to Jake Polledri’s effort, but once Tom Curry burst over to score the crucial fourth try and secure the bonus point, it looked significantly harder for their opponents to stop them from wrapping up the title.
A further try from Henry Slade secured the win, and though Owen Farrell missed his final two conversions to let four points go begging, it came to mean nothing as Ireland could not come up with the victory in Paris, nor France the 31-point winning margin they required.
“I’m very proud of all the players and staff," hailed Jones, who became England’s most successful head coach in the Six Nations by securing a third title in five attempts. "They’ve reacted superbly to the changing situations in the past couple of weeks and remained focused on the goal of winning the Guinness Six Nations.
“We’ll have a couple of days rest then get back together later next week and put everything we have into our preparation for the Autumn Nations Cup. It’s another really important tournament for us and I’ll be expecting the same levels of application as we work towards performing at our best.
“We’d also like to thank all of our supporters. It’s strange not having fans in the stadium and we know it is a tough time for the country but we felt your support throughout the campaign and it does make a difference. Hopefully we can continue to deliver more good moments for our fans in the coming weeks."
It all seemed so simple before kick-off. Score at least four tries against the basement side in the Championship that have conceded an average of five per match, then sit back and watch events in Paris with a well-earned beer to toast the centurion.
At least Youngs lived up to his end of the bargain. It may have been the worst way to honour only the second England men’s player to reach 100 caps after Jason Leonard when he ran out to silence at the Stadio Olimpico, but the scrum-half didn’t let it affect him one bit. The 31-year-old immediately injected pace into the game by quick-tapping England’s first penalty in the opposition half, and minutes later he was over for the opening score.
With Mako Vunipola the unlikely candidate to slot in at first receiver, the prop shipped the ball on to Owen Farrell, who spotted scrum-half Marcello Violi rushing out of the line and opening a gap, before releasing Youngs to score after committing final man Minozzi.
With Farrell’s conversion putting England seven points ahead, thoughts were already turning to where they would set the bar for the French and Irish later in the evening. An additional Farrell penalty added weight to that theory, with Italy looking at sixes and sevens in the opening 10 minutes.
But from nowhere, Franco Smith’s side woke up. Tackles were landing, lines were broken and England started to look rattled as a blue wall appeared in front of them. It meant that the visitors started to force matters a bit more than they wanted to, and after Carlo Canna fired a warning shot of what was to come as he kicked loose-ball deep down field and into touch in the England 22, the failure to hold onto the ball came to hurt the title-chasers.
Again, it was Canna who profited as Kyle Sinckler took his eye off the ball. The Italian centre swooped on possession and immediately released the Gloucester No 8 Polledri, who in very different circumstances could have been playing in white like his English father Peter. Youngs may well have hoped for that U-turn when the back row charged through both him and Anthony Watson on his way to the line as he put Italy firmly back into the contest.
The try got Italy’s tail up, and every knock-on, turnover and penalty - and there were a lot - was roared emphatically. England didn’t like it, with the two sets of players regularly coming face-to-face in anger once play was stopped, and the fury bubbling away below the surface significantly affected the quality of rugby on top of it.
England’s task was made tougher when debutant Jonny Hill was sent to the sin-bin for a high tackle on the Italian wing Edoardo Padavani, who was forced to leave the field and failed an HIA to end his game. The only saving grace for the Exeter lock was the fact that Sam Underhill had made the original tackle on Padovani moments before Hill arrived, downgrading a certain red to a yellow card.
Italy powered on, but they could not muster the cutting edge that Polledri displayed to get across the line as Maro Itoje in particular rose to the fore to disrupt lineout after lineout in the danger zone. England held on to keep the scoreboard intact in Hill’s absence, and not long after his return the tables turned on the hosts as Polledri was sin-binned to give England the advantage.
It almost cost them dearly when England had a late chance to score, but a driving lineout maul could not be converted and another Italian roar echoed around the empty Stadio Olimpico. Billy Vunipola took exception and sparked another set-to, earning himself a telling off.
England came out determined to complete the job at hand, and led my man-of-the-match Youngs they eventually would not be denied. It came from Hill’s intervention, the lock going from zero to hero to charge down Italian scrum-half Marcello Violi, and after Itoje swooped on the ball, Youngs was able to snipe over with a trademark dummy and beat full-back Minozzi to add his second.
Suddenly it was England who had their tails up, and with 30 minutes left on the clock George added the third with a textbook driving maul, though referee Pascal Gauzere was initially having none of is when he confused the try line for the painted sponsor logo on the pitch and ruled the ball short before being informed of his error.
Italy refused to give in, but eventually the defences fell when George and Youngs combined on the blindside from another driving maul, and when the defence bit in sniffing a turnover, Curry breezed over on the short side with the defence nowhere to be seen.
England knew they were into pole position in terms of the title picture, but more importantly so did Italy as they wilted and allowed Farrell to put through a deft kick for replacement Ben Earl to collect and, knowing he wouldn’t make the try line on his knees, offload to Slade for the centre to step inside the covering Paolo Garbisi and Federico Mori and score add a fifth.
England pushed for one more score, but errors from replacement props Ellis Genge and Will Stuart cost them meant the visitors had to make do with a 29-point winning margin. As it was, it proved enough.