Abby Dow at the double as England thrash Italy in Women’s Six Nations

England returned to Parma’s Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi, the scene of their latest grand slam triumph in November, and once more racked up a half-century of points. But unlike in the autumn, for an hour this was a real contest. England are on course for a play-off with France to decide this year’s Six Nations but only after the break did they assert their dominance.

Two of England’s nine tries came from their wing Abby Dow – heartwarming moments as she had missed last week’s win over Scotland following the death of her father, Paul. The final score was unflattering to Italy, with Emily Scarratt converting all but one of those tries.

But the Red Roses have real strength in depth and, as the game broke up after the hour mark, all their replacements made an instant impact, with Zoe Harrison particularly impressive. The Saracens fly-half atoned for breaking Covid protocols, something that cost her a starting place against Scotland, and her rivalry for the No 10 jersey with Helena Rowland will be interesting.

England’s head coach, Simon Middleton, said: “I’m absolutely thrilled for Abby. She has shown great strength of character in a difficult time and had tremendous support from her club, Wasps.

“We were fantastic in the second half but very, very lucky to be ahead at half-time. We weren’t really physical enough before the interval, particularly at the breakdown, and before the break didn’t create a single chance.”

Middleton made 10 changes to the side that beat Scotland 52-10 in Doncaster, with an all-Harlequins front row and their captain, Sarah Hunter, returning for her first international outing in more than a year. England knew that Italy, four of whose players are based in France, were going to offer a more physical threat than Scotland. And so it proved.

The game was in its second quarter by the time England got on to the scoreboard. Until then Italy had looked the most dangerous side, but when a pass by Michela Sillari went astray Scarratt pounced and ran in the first try from around 50 metres out.

It was cruel on Italy and more ill luck was to follow. Another Italian move broke down and Meg Jones was on hand for a mazy run from inside her own half. The Wasps centre could not quite make it over the line herself, but Vicky Fleetwood was on her shoulder to score the second try.

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England had got on the wrong side of the French referee, Aurélie Groizeleau, a week earlier and they did so again when Scarratt was shown a yellow card for a high tackle on Maria Magatti. Sillari converted the resulting penalty, although it was soon cancelled out by Rowland’s kick.

The visitors were 14 points ahead by the interval but the score did not reflect the game. After the break Scarratt returned to the field to land a penalty but it was a measure of England’s respect for their opponents that they were opting to take three points once more rather than kick for the corner. After a period of intense English pressure Dow dived over for a try in the corner and was given the benefit of the doubt, with the wing appearing to ground the ball just short of the line.

England then began to empty their bench and turn on the power and the game started to unravel for Italy, whose experienced scrum-half, Sara Barattin, was sent to the sin-bin. One of England’s replacements, Harriet Millar-Mills, crossed for a try and Rowland then scored for the second successive week after good work by the flanker Alex Matthews.

Dow scored the best try of the afternoon with a run down the touchline from halfway after a smart pass by another replacement, Poppy Cleall.

Cleall’s sister, Bryony, then burrowed over after a drive from a lineout for her third try in three international appearances before Claudia MacDonald and Lark Davies rubbed more salt into Italy’s wounds.