London: England came through a huge scare to keep their Grand Slam hopes alive with an unconvincing 18-11 victory over Italy in the Six Nations Championship at Twickenham on Sunday.
When Italy scored the only try of the match, through Australia-born wing Luke McLean in the 49th minute, they cut England’s lead to 15-11.
But England, with recalled fly-half Toby Flood kicking all of the hosts’ points courtesy of six penalties, hung on to set up a title-decider away to champions Wales on Saturday.
A Wales win at the Millennium Stadium will deny England a first Grand Slam since their World Cup-winning year of 2003 and if the defending champions triumph by eight points or more they will also take the title.
Were Wales to win by seven points, the Championship would be decided on try count, with the Welsh currently two tries better off than England.
“I’m disappointed we weren’t quite accurate enough, we let the control slip in the second half and Italy pushed us right to the end,” said relieved England coach Stuart Lancaster. “We’ll have to improve on that performance.”
Italy’s display was all the more creditable as it followed two heavy defeats by Scotland (10-34) and Wales (9-26).
“It was a very good performance, we came from two poor games and we played better rugby with much more physicality,” said impressive Azzurri full-back Andrea Masi.
England kicked-off having won all their previous 18 Tests against Italy.
But come the finish they were forced into some desperate scrambling as Italy laid siege to their line.
Lancaster made several changes to the team that beat France 23-13, handing a first start to Saracens prop Mako Vunipola.
He also selected a new half-back combination in scrum-half Danny Care, who replaced Ben Youngs, and Flood, in for the injured Owen Farrell.
Italy threw the competition wide open on the first weekend with a 23-18 win over pre-tournament but they were like a ship without a rudder against Wales in the absence of captain Sergio Parisse.
But the world-class No 8 returned at Twickenham after his ban for abusing a referee in a French club fixture was reduced on appeal and so too did fly-half Luciano Orquera, who masterminded the win over France.
England forced a fourth minute penalty that Flood converted and it looked as if the visitors would soon crack.
Flood and Orquera then exchanged penalties before Italy came desperately close to a try.
Parisse burst round the front of a lineout and his superb inside pass found Alessandro Zanni.
The flanker’s return pass was knocked up and although Italy scrum-half Edoardo Gori regathered, Irish referee George Clancy mistakenly blew for an Italy knock-on.
England then squandered a try when, after a break by wing Chris Ashton, Flood was held up over the line as he attempted to ground the ball.
Clancy then penalised England for early engagement at the ensuing five-metre scrum and the try chance disappeared.
England were becoming increasingly sloppy but Italy’s cause wasn’t helped either side of the half-hour mark.
First powerful prop Martin Castrogiovanni went off injured and then scrum-half Edoardo Gori was sin-binned for pulling back Flood without the ball.
Flood increased England’s lead before the hosts butchered a try on the stroke of half-time.
Mike Brown burst down the left but was unable to find supporting fellow wing Ashton. Brad Barritt then didn’t move the ball wide and although England had an overlap, the chance evaporated when lock Geoff Parling put a foot in touch as he tried to take a high pass.
Fortunately for England, Italy centre Gonzalo Canale had strayed offside and Flood’s fourth penalty left them 12-3 up at the interval.
Flood and Orquera again exchanged penalties early in the second half to leave England 15-6 ahead before Italy stunned the bulk of a more than 81,000 crowd with a fine try, albeit one that originated from an England error.
Care’s poor tap penalty put England under pressure and his attempted clearance kick went backwards.
Italy secured possession and Orquera’s superbly weighted cross-field kick-pass was regathered by McLean, who went over.
Orquera, however, missed the conversion and a subsequent penalty before Flood kicked England a converted try in front at 18-11.