Italy coach Nick Mallett said he was proud of his team after they gave England a scare at the Stadio Flaminio on Sunday before going down 17-12 in their Six Nations clash.
Despite having Martin Castrogiovanni sent to the sin-bin midway through the second half when trailing 14-6, Italy fought back to 14-12 with eight minutes remaining before Jonny Wilkinson’s late drop goal sealed the win.
In the end the difference between the teams was the only try of the game from Mathew Tait, which came about because Andrea Masi missed a tackle on Ugo Monye on the wing.
“First of all I’m proud of the way the guys played, we’ve improved in a lot of areas of the game where we didn’t do well against Ireland (an opening 29-11 defeat in Dublin), particularly in our attacking play, the speed we moved the ball and the line-out was better,” said the England-born naturalised South African.
“There was not a lot in the game and I always knew it would be decided probably by a mistake rather than by a brilliant bit of play.
“It’s a pity because otherwise Masi had a good game, it’s just unfortunate that he got his head the wrong side on the tackle and England scored a good try.
“The good thing is that the team is disappointed because before they would have been happy to get so close to England but there’s a bit of frustration in the changing rooms because when you get so close, you would like to win.”
Italy were roundly criticised last week in their 29-11 defeat to Ireland because of their lack of ambition but Mallett insisted his team had gone for the jugular, despite never really threatening the England line.
“We only lost three line-outs, our backs and forwards gave speed to our attack and there wasn’t much between the two teams,” he added.
“We’re always ambitious, even when we played against the All Blacks at the San Siro and against South Africa (both in November tests).
“We’re not a team that’s not ambitious, we want to improve in all areas of our play, we’re always improving and we hope in two weeks we can play well against Scotland.
“We always try our best, sometimes we get it right and sometimes we don’t. We had a tough time against Ireland because the ball was so slow and we lost many line-outs.
“But this team wants to compete, it wants to get in the top 10 in world rugby and put pressure on the teams above us.” But despite the closeness of the score, Mallett denied that this was a missed opportunity.
“I never felt England were there for the taking, they had probably more opportunities to score tries than us and it was unusual that Jonny Wilkinson misses kicks like that (he missed two penalties and a conversion) and they had a great chance at the beginning that our scrum-half Tito Tebaldi did really well to kick out of bounds.
“They had more opportunities but if you look at the game it was that one mistake (that made the difference) because the cover was there on the wing.
“But at 14-12, in the last five minutes the team playing in the other’s half has the opportunity to score and England played it well and Jonny Wilkinson scored the drop-goal.”