England produced its most disjointed performance of the Six Nations in beating Italy 18-11 on Sunday to move to within one win of the Grand Slam.
Bereft of imagination, the English were kept tryless at Twickenham and needed a flawless display of place-kicking by flyhalf Toby Flood, who booted six penalties from six attempts, to stutter to a fourth straight win this tournament.
The Azzurri remain without a win in 19 matches against England but will be thrilled with the way they kept their opponents at bay, scoring the only try through Luke McLean and pushing all the way until the end in an unexpectedly tense finish. Italy captain Sergio Parisse was everywhere, a beacon of energy and pure class.
England is two points clear of second-place Wales, with the old rivals meeting in Cardiff on Saturday in a title decider. England has a superior points difference of 14 and can win the championship by losing by six points at Millennium Stadium.
While victory was naturally the order of the day, winning by a big enough margin to render Wales' task next week as near impossible would have been a close second for England.
The Italians, fresh off losses to Scotland and Wales, had conceded an average of 35 points from its six previous trips to Twickenham, and it was no surprise to hear visiting fullback Andrea Masi saying before the match that his team's task as "almost impossible."
Yet, for various reasons - Italy's gritty defense, England forcing play too much, the pressure of expectation - the hosts simply froze.
Indeed, the Italians were camped in England's 22 for the final 10 minutes and lost a crucial lineout from their own throw with minutes left.
With coach Stuart Lancaster sat ashen-faced in his seat, England was so desperate by the end that substitute Ben Youngs had to hack the ball out of play to bring the game to an end.
Even a draw would have been one of the most surprising results in Six Nations history, and Wales will quite rightly be confident ahead of next weekend's showdown.
England had all the ball early on but had only two penalties from Flood to show for its dominance after 18 minutes.
Luciano Orquera then halved the deficit with his own three-pointer, and the Italians almost produced the sucker punch after a superb inside pass from the peerless Parisse on halfway.\
Alessandro Zanni sped through but was hauled down 10 meters from the line, and Parisse ended up knocking on.
Flood was held up over the Italy line in the 24th when England should really have utilized a three-man overlap, and even the sin-binning of Italy scrumhalf Edoardo Gori and the loss to injury of teammate Martin Castrogiovanni (left leg) didn't usher in a flood of points for the hosts.
There were only two more penalties from Flood before halftime, so the sloppy English - perhaps underestimating their opponents - would have trotted off to the dressing room frustrated and disappointed.
Things didn't improve.
Orquera canceled out an early second-half penalty by Flood and then delivered a perfect cross-field kick behind the out-of-position Chris Ashton right into the path of McLean, who dotted down in the 49th minute.
The conversion was missed but Italy's tails were up at just 15-11 down.
England captain Chris Robshaw dropped a high kick under no pressure. Flood's kicking out of hand became aimless. Tackles were missed. England, suddenly, was a shambles.
Orquera missed a chance to put Italy just one point behind but skewed a penalty wide, and Flood's sixth of the afternoon - in the 62nd - gave England a seven-point cushion.
Only desperate defense and a lack of control at critical moments prevented Italy by pulling off what would have been an amazing draw.
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