LONDON - England toiled to a 17-12 victory over Italy today to remain level on points with France in the Six Nations standings.
It was a tepid response to France's brutal 33-10 demolition of Grand Slam champion Ireland yesterday.
That rout cemented the title credentials of Marc Lievremont's team, while England coach Martin Johnson has his work cut out to turn around his team's fortunes ahead of its meeting with the French on March 20. France and England are level on four points.
England was unconvincing in Rome against the championship's weakest side, with Mathew Tait producing the only try. Italy had trailed 14-6 but Mirco Bergamasco slotted in two more penalties to put the Azzurri within two points of the visitors.
It took a late drop-goal from Jonny Wilkinson, who had already landed three penalties, to finally kill off a spirited Italian rally.
England, which opened the championship by beating Wales, faces Ireland on February 27.
"We have a lot to work on," Johnson said. "There were a lot of chances we didn't take and we also lost the penalty count. That kept Italy in contention."
England finally broke through the resilient Italian defence in the 46th minute when Ugo Monye broke down the left wing and sent the ball inside to Armitage, who found Tait and the centre shrugged off the attentions of Tito Tebaldi to touch down.
England was helped by Italy being reduced to 14 men in the second half after prop Martin Castrogiovanni was yellow carded for killing the ball.
Italy's defence continued to frustrate England and even when Italy gave away penalties, Wilkinson was unusually off target with two penalty kicks.
"We showed that we can compete at this level," Italy No 8 Alessandro Zanni said. "But we made a few mistakes and allowed England to take advantage. We now have two weeks to get things right for the match with Scotland."
Italy and Scotland are both without a point from their opening two matches.
Scotland will be without a trio of key players - Thom Evans, Chris Paterson and Rory Lamont - for the rest of the championship due to injuries sustained in its 31-24 loss at Wales on Sunday (NZT). Evans underwent successful neck surgery, Paterson bruised a kidney and Lamont has injured his knee.
The match itself at Millennium Stadium provided the most dramatic action of the weekend. Wales was 10 points behind with only three minutes remaining of normal time.
But then came converted tries from Wales wings Leigh Halfpenny and Shane Williams either side of an equalising penalty from Stephen Jones to claim the team's first win of the tournament.
The last-gasp victory failed to mask Wales' defensive deficiencies. The fourth-place team has leaked five tries in just two Six Nations games this season - already three more than during the whole of the team's 2008 Grand Slam season.
"There were a couple of easy tries conceded," Wales centre James Hook said. "We are all disappointed with our defence. It is something we are going to be working on in the next two weeks, and France are a different kettle of fish again."
That was clear on Sunday as France ended Grand Slam champion Ireland's 12-match unbeaten run, which stretched back 15 months in international rugby.
France - Six Nations champions in 2006 and `07 - dominated the try count 3-1, with William Servat, Yannick Jauzion and Clement Poitrenaud crossing.
Lievremont was forced to bring in new wingers after Aurelien Rougerie and Benjamin Fall were hurt in the opening win over Scotland and both their replacements, Vincent Clerc and Alexis Palisson, went off with injuries on Saturday. Lievremont remains unconcerned and believes the injuries justify his often-criticised policy of rotation.
"One of the reasons we came up with a group of 30 to 40 players was to enable us to have quality players coming out of the bench," Lievremont said. "How many countries could maintain the same level with a high number of injuries?"
Third-place Ireland lacked the strength to respond to the French assault, providing a reality check for captain Gordon D'Arcy.
"All we can do now is try and win our remaining games while hoping somebody nicks one against France. Then if we win it, we win it," D'Arcy said. "If we don't then we'll have gone out on a high."