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England starts 6 Nations defense by crushing Italy 46-15

February 4, 2018

England's Sam Simmonds carries the ball over the line to score a try during the Six Nations rugby union international match between Italy and England at the Olympic Stadium, in Rome, Italy, Sunday, Feb. 4, 2018. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

ROME (AP) — Sam Simmonds showed he could be the answer to England’s problems at No. 8 in the defense of its Six Nations title with two tries and an outstanding performance to help the visitors beat Italy 46-15 in their Sunday opener.

Only handed his tournament debut in the absence of injured duo Billy Vunipola and Nathan Hughes, Simmonds was one of England’s hardest workers, weighing in with 23 tackles, 14 carries and 80 meters made in addition to his two tries.

“He’s a good, young lad with a great set of skills,” England coach Eddie Jones said. “If he was a cricketer, he’d be playing Twenty20. He’s a bit different — he’s fast and runs good lines.

“He’s a completely humble boy who just gets on with it. He’s fitted into the team well. He’s different from Billy and Nathan and sometimes it takes sides a bit of time to adjust to that, but our adjustment was good. At the end of the game we played some lovely rugby.”

Jones, who had previously said Simmonds was too small to be a No. 8, compared the 23-year-old to former All Blacks loose forward Victor Vito.

“Life’s full of contradictions and Sam is one of them,” Jones said. “He’s a different sort of No. 8. He’s like Vito — fast and elusive.”

Anthony Watson also scored two of the visitors’ seven tries as England got its bid for a record third straight outright Six Nations title off to a bright start.

The only negative note for England was an injury to Ben Youngs.

Youngs was carted off on a stretcher less than 10 minutes into his 56th start for England, which overtook Matt Dawson’s record of most starts for an England scrum-half.

“We’ll know more tomorrow but he’s unlikely to be fit for the Wales game,” Jones said immediately after the match. “It looks like a ligament injury. It’s too early to make any prediction.”

Youngs went down with what looked like a nasty knee injury after his left leg appeared to get trapped in the ruck. The Leicester scrum-half had several minutes of treatment on the pitch before being taken off on a stretcher on a golf cart to sympathetic applause from more than 61,000 fans at the Stadio Olimpico.

England was already 5-0 up by then and Watson scored his second try of the day moments after the restart. The ball was once again played through hands with lightning speed and Watson raced down the right flank to again turn over in the corner, just as the cart carrying Youngs was passing.

Owen Farrell missed the first two conversions but he racked up England’s third try — only his sixth try in 54 international matches — and added the extras on that occasion as well as on his next three attempts.

The Azzurri refused to roll over and kept the scoreline down until three tries in the final 12 minutes — from Simmonds, George Ford and Jack Nowell.

“It’s a very positive start,” said Jones. “We always knew it was going to be a tough game, they played exceptionally well and full credit to Italy ... it was a good tough game of rugby and we ran away with it in the end.

“I was really pleased with the effort today ... we were completely dominant in the scrum, our lineout was good and then at the end we were able to score tries with some lovely ball movement.”

Tommaso Benvenuti and Mattia Bellini turned over for Italy, both following wonderful passes from Tommaso Allan, who converted one and scored a penalty kick.

England moved to the top of the table, ahead of Wales on goal difference. The two meet at Twickenham on Saturday.

“We will enjoy the win and start looking ahead tomorrow,” Jones said. “The tournament (is) only going to get better.”

In this fixture last year, Italy used a tactic dubbed “The Fox” at Twickenham to bamboozle England by frequently not contesting the breakdown.

There was to be no repeat this time around and Italy lost its 13th successive Six Nations match. However, there are clear signs of improvement under coach Conor O’Shea despite Italy’s continued problems in defense. England’s third try came when, after sustained pressure inside the 22, Farrell gathered a pass to run through a gaping hole and turn over.

“I am proud of the lads but also very angry because we played well during the game, we created a lot of opportunities,” O’Shea said. “Now it’s very hard because we lost.”

There was further bad news for Italy as captain Sergio Parisse picked up a rib injury. The Azzurri will hope to have their record-appearance holder fit for Saturday’s match against Ireland in Dublin.

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