reports from Durban
England have yet to persuade the rest of the world as gathered here in South Africa that they really are seeking to turn their big talk into deeds and, going into this evening's Group B match against Italy at King's Park, they no longer seem to have persuaded even themselves.
So as ever it is a case of seeing is believing. After the confidence with which England arrived in Durban "fresh" (Jack Rowell's optimistic description) from their Five Nations' Grand Slam, the maladroitness of their opening World Cup match against Argentina was the most acute disappointment.
Their astonishing error-count - the manager identified no fewer than 30 of the unforced variety during last Saturday's providential 24-18 win - was the outward sign of a problem they never expected. Contrary to their own assertion, England's play over the past season and before has in fact been mostly based on the unadorned efficacy of power, yet against the Pumas they were overpowered.
And even if they can realistically expect a less full-frontal assault today than that mounted by the Argentines' dreaded bajadita scrum, they will quickly appreciate that the Italian forwards are no softies either. The scrum was their one proficient function during the deflating 42-18 defeat by Western Samoa.
The changes Rowell has made have the contrasting purpose of tightening the tight play and loosening the loose. Graham Rowntree's elevation at loose-head prop and Jason Leonard's reluctant switch to tight-head are based on the hard evidence of the Argentina game and appear more dramatic than they are because Victor Ubogu has in effect been dropped and the Five Nations pack shown to be inadequate almost as soon as the championship had been won.
Not to worry: the Leicester scrum of which Rowntree forms a prominent part is as tight a unit as exists in the English game and Leonard, doubtless to his eternal regret, conclusively proved his tight-head capabilities when the Lions put him there in New Zealand two years ago.
At the same time as being a superior scrummager Rowntree is almost the equal of Ubogu as a ball-carrier and, with England abandoning outright brawn in the back row with the inclusion of Neil Back, they might now get around the field rather better than they did against the dominant Pumas.
But more than any of these specifics, what England by their own admission need most is to stop allowing opposing teams to set the agenda. This is belated acknowledgement that it is no good whingeing about the spoiling tactics of others when, as they showed last Saturday, they are themselves capable of every last trick of negativity.
This is also a pertinent reminder with the sour aftermath of the Scottish match still fresh in the mind, and memories also rekindled of the second match of the 1991 World Cup which England won easily enough before denouncing the penalty-prone Italians as cheats. Attempts this week to make something of this bygone unpleasantness have been the uttermost irrelevance.
Today Will Carling misses an international for the first time in more than six years, leaving Rob Andrew to tell us why we ought to believe in an instant improvement. "There are a few players finding the circumstances of the World Cup very different, but now that we've started playing I don't think we'll have a problem," the stand-in captain said.
"We can almost forget about the Argentina game; it's history now. We need to enjoy what's going on, look forward to it, and if we do I'm sure we'll be fine. We need to get some England pattern on to the game and impose ourselves on the Italians instead of sitting back and watching."
Easier said than done. Contrary to Rowell's wishes and advice, the players decided to have the day off before the Pumas match and not go through even the relaxed training routine which is their wont on the eve of an international back home. The manager read the riot act at a brutally frank team meeting on Sunday night and, sure enough, pre-match practice proceeded as usual at King's Park yesterday, with Dean Richards again taking no part but Carling training lightly.
It is a neat irony that England are suddenly as bothered by themselves as they are by the Italians, because this is precisely how Georges Coste, Italy's coach, talks about his side. "England had a very successful World Cup campaign in '91 and it appears to me they have continued to work on their strong points," the harassed Frenchman said.
These he defines as "the winning of possession, the kicking game, tactical play, territorial occupation", which sound no different from England's priorities before the drive for dynamic rugby, or at any rate talk about it, began 12 months ago. Still, at least Coste is an admirer: "I am convinced that England are a very, very strong team, psychologically very mature."
His own team, however, he regards as prospective basket- cases. "There are many people who think England were not really on form against Argentina, but England do not worry me too much at the moment," Coste said yesterday. "Italy are the team who worry me."
Rowell may well feel the same about England. But, after Western Samoa's defeat of Argentina yesterday, a win today will put them in the quarter- finals.
ENGLAND v ITALY
at King's Park, Durban
M Catt Bath 15 L Troiani L'Aquila
T Underwood Leicester 14 P Vaccari Milan
P de Glanville Bath 13 I Francescato Treviso
J Guscott Bath 12 S Bordon Rovigo
R Underwood Leicester 11 M Gerosa Piacenza
R Andrew Wasps, capt 10 D Dominguez Milan
K Bracken Bristol 9 A Troncon Milan
G Rowntree Leicester 1 Massimo Cuttitta Milan, capt
B Moore Harlequins 2 C Orlandi Piacenza
J Leonard Harlequins 3 E Properzi-Curti Milan
M Johnson Leicester 4 P Pedroni Milan
M Bayfield Northampton 5 M Giacheri Treviso
T Rodber Northampton 6 A Sgorlon San Dona
B Clarke Bath 8 J Gardner Roma
N Back Leicester 7 O Arancio Catania
Referee: S Hilditch (Ireland). Kick-off: 4.0 (ITV)Reuse content