Tries from Giovanbattista Venditti and Tommaso Benvenuti’s had put Italy into a deserved half-time lead but Owen Farrell’s immaculate kicking and a second try in as many weeks for Charlie Hodgson saw England home.
Italy threatened to take their first ever Six Nations victory over England in wintry conditions, though they now lie bottom of the table while Stuart Lancaster’s men move temporarily top.
England began the game well and looked prepared to throw the ball around despite the snow-sodden pitch, with Phil Dowson, facing strong competition for his place, particularly prominent.
But soon the conditions began to impact the game and both sides were forced to adjust their attacks accordingly, preferring to mix strong runners with kicks over the top. In a rare bright spot in the opening exchanges Italian wing Luke McLean beat several England defenders on the left before a knock-on ended the move.
Jacques Brunel’s side were beginning to build pressure, but a loose Sergio Parisse pass proved costly as Dave Strettle hacked on before being felled by Kris Burton, who was perhaps fortunate to avoid a sin-bin, and Farrell converted the penalty.
England’s solid scrum was proving to be a source of solace and an Italian infringement was punished by Farrell to extend England’s lead.
But Italy hit back and were eventually rewarded with a try minutes before half-time. England were proving uncharacteristically slow to react to Italian kicks and when they failed to deal with Benvenuti’s kick, Venditti took full advantage to gratefully dive on the loose ball.
Burton missed the conversion but matters worsened for England when, almost straight from the re-start, Benvenuti turned try scorer to send the Stadio Olimpico into raptures.
Ben Foden, in part responsible for the Venditti try, broke away but his attempted pass to Hodgson only found Benvenuti who raced over from halfway. Burton converted to put the Italians into a 12-6 lead at the break.
A block by Tom Croft on Parisse then gave Burton the opportunity to increase the Italians’ lead early in the second half. Stuart Lancaster’s men were staring down the barrel of a surprise nine-point deficit but Hodgson responded immediately with an almost mirror-image effort of his match-winning try against Scotland last week.
England’s attack had just broken down but Masi’s clearance kick was excellently charged down by the Saracens fly half, before teammate Farrell continued his afternoon’s perfect kicking record to convert and narrow the gap to two.
Farrell put England ahead once more with two penalties as they began to get a foothold in the game with replacements Ben Morgan and Lee Dickson bringing renewed energy.
In recent years the Italian resistance may have wilted at this point, but this current crop are made of stronger stuff and stormed back with vigour. Repeated attacks battered the English line but yielded no return, with replacement fly-half Tobias Botes missing two crucial penalties.
The Azzurri continued to mount pressure but a knock-on from Mauro Bergamasco as they searched for a way through allowed Brad Barritt to kick into touch and maintain Lancaster’s perfect start as head coach.
Italy: Masi, Venditti, Benvenuti, Canale, McLean, Burton, Gori. Lo Cicero, Ghiraldini, Castrogiovanni, Geldenhuys, Bortolami, Zanni, Barbieri, Parisse.
Replacements: d’Apice (for Ghiraldini 58), Cittadini (for Castrogiovanni 34), Pavanello (for Geldenhuys 57), Bergamasco (for Barbieri 76), Semenzato (for Gori 57), Botes (for Burton 48), Morisi (for Canale 63).
England: Foden, Ashton, Barritt, Farrell, Strettle, Hodgson, Youngs. Corbisiero, Hartley, Cole, Botha, Palmer, Croft, Robshaw, Dowson.
Replacements: Webber (for Hartley 76), Stevens (for Cole 76), Parling (for Palmer 58), Morgan (for Dowson 51), Dickson (for Youngs 51), Turner-Hall (for Hodgson 78), Brown.
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