Guinness Six Nations
Italy 5-34 Wales
Ben Youngs marked his 100th cap with a brace of tries as England secured a bonus-point victory over Italy in Rome to keep their 2020 Guinness Six Nations title chances alive.
The veteran scrum-half crossed at the start of both halves to put the Red Rose on the road to all five points, while Jamie George also scored on his 50th appearance for England.
Further tries from Tom Curry and Henry Slade ensured the visitors bagged the bonus point and increased their points difference to pile the pressure on Ireland in Paris.
Only Andy Farrell’s men can realistically deny England the Championship now, with France requiring a bonus-point victory and a winning margin of 32 points or more to top the table.
Ireland have to win by seven points or more against Les Bleus or achieve a bonus-point triumph to leapfrog England following the 34-5 victory for Eddie Jones’ men at the Stadio Olimpico.
Youngs was celebrating a century of appearances for the Red Rose and it did not take him long to make his mark, scoring his 15th try for his country inside the opening five minutes.
Owen Farrell cut through the Italian defence following a deft pass from Mako Vunipola before finding Youngs on his inside shoulder, allowing the No.9 to run it in under the posts.
Farrell backed up his assist by adding the extras and it was not long before England were on the front foot once again, with the visitors asserting their dominance at the scrum.
The pressure resulted in a further three points for Farrell in the 13th minute as the fly-half slotted a penalty after Braam Steyn drifted offside, extending the visitors’ advantage to 10 points.
But Franco Smith’s men went against the script five minutes later, responding with a try out of nothing to cut the deficit and give England something to think about.
Carlo Canna pounced on the loose ball after Kyle Sinckler was unable to hold on to it before Polledri raced over in the left corner, although Paolo Garbisi was unable to convert.
And Italy were handed another boost on 22 minutes when England were reduced to 14 men after debutant Jonny Hill was sin-binned for a high challenge on Edoardo Padovani.
But despite being a man down, England continued to test Italy and a fine George Furbank kick pinned the hosts back before Jonathan Joseph fumbled the ball from the resulting attack.
The Red Rose were able to see out the rest of Hill’s time off the pitch without conceding but they experienced another scare when the Azzurri crashed over the whitewash with a driving maul.
Fortunately, the ball was held up before the momentum shifted back in England’s favour when Italian try-scorer Polledri was shown yellow himself towards the end of the half.
Sensing an opportunity, the visitors powered forward with their sights firmly on the tryline only to be denied by last-ditch Italian defending – with the hosts winning the subsequent scrum.
And there was still time for Italy to show how dangerous they can be on the cusp of half-time as replacement Federico Mori denied a try by the covering Furbank and Jonny May.
The second half began almost as a carbon copy of the first, with Youngs spotting a gap in the blue wall before producing a signature dummy-and-go to cross for his second try of the game.
Farrell ensured England came away with the full seven points and the sucker-punch appeared to turn the tide back in the visitors’ favour as they started to repeatedly break the Italian line.
Italy’s problems were compounded when Matteo Minozzi was forced off following an accidental clash with May, with Guglielmo Palazzani coming on in place of the full-back.
And with the hosts still reeling from Youngs’ second-half sucker-punch, England turned the screw on 52 minutes as George stretched the lead with a try on his milestone appearance.
The Saracens hooker rumbled over the whitewash off the back of a driving lineout maul before Farrell continued his perfect record from the tee by adding the extras.
With England needing one more try to secure the all-important bonus-point, Jones rolled the dice and handed a debut to Gloucester Rugby’s lightning fast winger Ollie Thorley.
Ellis Genge and Will Stuart also entered the fray for the Red Rose and the latter provided a key intervention with 15 minutes to play, earning a penalty for the men in white.
Farrell kicked to the corner and after Hill plucked the ball from the lineout, Curry showed a turn of pace to run around the right side of the Italian defence for the decisive fourth try.
And with less than ten minutes to play, Slade boosted England’s points difference with a fifth try after replacement Ben Earl collected a grubber from Farrell and found the Exeter Chiefs centre.
While Farrell was unable to add the extras for England’s final two tries, it was a case of job done as they ensured the 2020 Championship would go down to the last match on Super Saturday.