How England yearned for a clean bill of health. How they yearned for a razzamatazz send-off. How the locals yearned for a classic Friday night on the Toon. It didn't quite materialise.
The fitting farewell ahead of England's departure from Heathrow on Sunday evening, bound for Japan and a tilt at World Cup glory, was only a partial success, pyrrhic in nature, a fractured win gained with an improved four-try performance in the second-half but with at least one man in the treatment room. Wasps' lock, Joe Launchbury, was the chief casualty, caught painfully in the lower back as he tried to clear out over Jonny May on the half-hour mark, initially recovering only to leave the field a few minutes later in some discomfort.
Injury is the constant spectre at moments such as these when the sweat and toil, the hopes and dreams, of four years are centred on making that plane. Prop, Kyle Sinckler, hobbled off towards the end while substitute hooker, Luke Cowan-Dickie, also ended his shift prematurely.
The warm-up period is over and even if a chill north-east bears no comparison to the humid-sweat box that is their training camp in Miyazaki, the final run-out was designed to keep England in some sort of groove before their opening World Cup Pool C match against Tonga in the Sapporo Dome on September 22nd. England, though, were patchy rather than fluent, enterprising but lacking precision. Scrum-half, Ben Youngs and wing, Jonny May, were the stand-out turns.
Even if high-quality play was only ever sporadic, the vast tiers of the Gallowgate End lent throaty support at every turn. As a missionary exercise, England's visit had its limitations with the team flying in and flying out as they readied themselves for Japan. But such was the turn-out, such was the fervent backing, that it would be criminal if this were to be a one-off.
May has added so many layers to his game that he will have defence coaches across the tournament having sleepless nights as they ponder how to coral him. The Leicester wing has always had pace, blistering pace at that, but he used to go walkabout across the pitch, lost in a maze of his own. Now he is far more direct and has strength through the tackle. His aerial game, too, is a real boon for England. May was the star act, straining to break free, a menace for any defence.
There were still question marks in the air as the serious business hoves into view. The scrum-half issue has not been merely one of wondering if England have deep enough resources with only two on the plane, Ben Youngs and Willi Heinz. Youngs is the evident no.1 in situ yet the Leicester man had not played with the necessary assurance. He needed to rediscover that sharpness in his decision-making, greater alacrity his pass and just to become the snap, crackle and pop scrum-half we know that he can be. It all came together for him.
Youngs looked as if he knew that he had not been hitting his straps of late, planting a lovely over-the-shoulder kick that almost led to a score for Jonny May in the early stages and then injecting tempo with a well-judged quick tap penalty. Youngs was busy and alert. That was more like it. He continued to flourish and drew the defence beautifully when sending centre, Joe Marchant, over under the posts for a well-worked try in the 53rd minute. Youngs made way for Heinz on the hour mark having stilled any doubts whatsoever about his form.
Bath's rookie wing, Ruaridh McConnochie, a Sevens convert, got to make his debut after two false starts. The 27 year old was eager to make an impression and was soon looking for work in midfield, later claiming well under the high ball.
Adopted local lad, Mark Wilson, a Cumbrian who became accepted as a Geordie during his years at Newcastle Falcons, was striving to show that he should be a starter in the back-row as he had been so tellingly in the autumn. One blindside surge promised much only for a duff final inside pass to May. Nonetheless Wilson was relentless in the tackle.
Eddie Jones shuffled his propping roster far earlier than customary with Ellis Genge and Kyle Sinckler coming on for Joe Marler and Dan Cole in the 33rd minute. The bold ploy paid off with both props involved in the build-up to Youngs' try in the 45th minute.
The crowd wanted action. England wanted a win. There were groans as Owen Farrell opted for the posts but the England captain did not want a first ever loss to Italy on his side's ledger. Three successful penalties sent England into the break with a 9-0 lead, only for Farrell to miss a straightforward pot three minutes after the re-start. Youngs' try steadied nerves while Marchant's effort removed any doubt as to the outcome of the contest.
Italy head coach, Conor O'Shea, also opted for a 'mix-and-match' selection as Eddie Jones had dubbed England's, mindful that he wants to keep his stars out of the firing line. Yet there was an early relish for the fray about Italy, breaking deep into England territory with a thrust by flanker, Sebastian Negri and a scamper by fly-half, Carlo Canna, only for centre, Tommaso Benvenuti to lose the ball over the England line under pressure from May.
England had their measure, however, dominating the second-half. There was never any real threat to their superiority. England had a couple more score in them, rumbling forward from short-range to work Genge over for a try in the 68th minute with Watson also on the scoresheet six minutes from. Farrell converted all four tries to finish with 17 points.
It was job done, satisfactory without being scintillating.
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