LONDON (AP) — England belatedly got to grips with innovative tactics by Italy and pulled clear in the second half for a 36-15 bonus-point win in the Six Nations on Sunday, extending the team's national-record streak of victories to 17.
The Italians — huge underdogs for the game — held a halftime lead at Twickenham for the first time after confusing England by not contesting the breakdown, freeing their players to get beyond the usual ruck line and block any passes behind the tackle area. So bewildered were England's players that they were asking French referee Romain Poite how to counter the tactic.
Starting the second half 10-5 behind because of a 40th-minute try from Italy center Giovanbattista Venditti, England scored two early tries in three minutes through Danny Care and Elliot Daly to go 17-10 ahead, only for Italy's Michele Campagnaro to barge through poor defending for a 61st-minute try.
Replacement wing Jack Nowell (twice) and center Ben Te'o scored tries in the final 12 minutes to see off the Azzurri, who have lost all 23 of their international matches against England.
"Every day is a school day," said England flanker James Haskell, who was the most vocal of the players to confront Poite about Italy's game plan.
Midway through the half, Haskell was heard asking Poite: "For clarity, on the ruck thing, what do we need to do to make it a ruck?" Poite replied: "I am a referee, not a coach. You will probably find the solution with your coach."
England coach Eddie Jones accused Italy of using a game plan which was against the spirit of rugby.
It meant this was a real scare for England, which started the defense of its Six Nations title with narrow wins over France and Wales. But a second straight Grand Slam is on — and the team is within one more victory of matching New Zealand's tier-one record of 18 straight wins.
It was a record-tying 10th straight win in the Six Nations for England, a feat achieved also by the English from 1882-86 and 1922-25. The Italians have now lost 10 Six Nations games in a row, and questions are being asked about their worthiness of a guaranteed place in Europe's top-tier international tournament.
They certainly gave England a puzzle to solve in what proved to be a unique game, though.
"We have to think differently, like we did today," Italy coach Conor O'Shea said. "We were playing absolutely legally. What we did today, we played to the laws."
England captain Dylan Hartley said he was "confused" and Haskell said the match was a "hard one to play, and not a great one to watch for the fans."
England holds a three-point lead over Ireland after three games and plays Scotland at Twickenham in two weeks. The English finish the tournament with a match against Ireland in Dublin.