Just before kick-off in the Eternal City's modern version of the Colosseum of old a band of Azzurri followers let off a flare high in the Curva Nord section of a stadium transformed overnight into a winter wonderland. If only they had found a way of letting off some flair instead, temperatures might have risen sufficiently to warm the spirit.
There was a big chance for the union game here on Saturday: an opportunity to showcase the best of itself to the wider Roman public after the move across the Tiber from Stadio Flaminio. The chance went begging. There were three tries, but, each in its own way, were tries from next door rather than the tries from the ends of the earth. A triple ricochet, an interception and a chargedown? Not much poetry there.
The Azzurri themselves had a bigger opportunity still, and they blew it. Sergio Parisse, the finest No 8 in world rugby, knew this to be true and said as much afterwards. "England were not strong today," he said, bitterly disappointed. "This should have been our moment to beat them."
So it was that England, giving everything of themselves and more under the caretaker coaching team headed up by Stuart Lancaster, secured a second successive away victory in the Six Nations. Lancaster has tapped into something valuable, namely, the sense of togetherness.
This was best articulated by Lee Dickson, who won his second cap off the bench by replacing Ben Youngs. "When we went in at half-time, after conceding two soft tries right before the break, there was this complete sense of calm," he said. "I looked around and thought: 'We're absolutely together. The people in this room will do anything for each other.' And that's how it turned out. It gave me a real buzz, playing half an hour rather than just a few minutes: it felt like my first cap. But the thing that gives you the biggest buzz is the spirit in the squad. Players, coaches, back-room staff... we all want it, badly."
What chances England had were either created for them by their opponents or resulted from some rumbustious midfield interjections from Owen Farrell, who again kicked quite beautifully, and Brad Barritt, who showed strongly at times. Lancaster knows England are missing approximately half a game at present: they are all yin and no yang. Given the state they were in after the World Cup, this is acceptable – but only for so long.
Scorers: Italy: Tries Venditti, Benvenuti; Conversion Burton; Penalty Burton. England Try: Hodgson; Conversion Farrell; Penalties Farrell 4.Reuse content