Massimo Cuttitta, the experienced Italian loose-head prop, summed up the mood in the visiting camp yesterday by agreeing that a victory would force the organisers of the Five Nations' Championship to expand their horizons. "We want to turn it into the Six Nations," he said, "and a win at Twickenham would make our case a cast-iron one."
Few outside the inner circle of the Five Nations hierarchy can come up with an excuse for the closed shop policy. Italy have been producing high- class sides at both club and international level for several years now and recent victories over strong Scottish and Irish national teams have underlined that fact. This season alone, they have taken both Australia and Wales to the limit before conceding honourable defeats.
For Cuttitta, this afternoon's match is something special. He will win his 50th cap and by remarkable coincidence, his direct opponent, Jason Leonard, will be doing likewise. To make the parallel even stronger, Leonard is England's vice-captain.
In theory, England should wield too big a stick at the line-out to come under serious threat. The Italians are without three gifted second-row forwards - Diego Scaglia, Pierpaolo Pedroni and Mark Giacheri are all injured - and if Martin Johnson and the new cap Simon Shaw fail to dominate questions will be asked.
However Phil de Glanville, the new England captain, will be wary of the match deteriorating into a kicking contest for if the result hangs on a penalty shoot-out between his own marksman, Mike Catt, and the Argentinian- born Diego Dominguez, there is likely to be only one winner. Dominguez is one of the most dependable point accumulators in world rugby - he currently boasts 397 points from 31 internationals - and when he played for Milan against Cardiff in the European Cup last month, he looked well capable of winning the game on his own.
De Glanville is understandably wary of the threat posed by the Italian outside-half. He considers Catt's natural range to be 40 metres and no more, so there is a distinct possibility that Tim Stimpson, the new full- back, will be called on if long-range shots are the order of the day.
"We have plenty of options and it's the sort of thing that needs to be decided on the pitch in response to the given situation," De Glanville said. "If Catty finds a good rhythm, strikes the ball well early on and looked capable of kicking goals from all areas of the pitch, we'll give him his head. However, we will also be looking to run penalties back at the Italians if the position calls for it."
Jack Rowell, the England coach, was conspicuous by his absence as De Glanville and his men cantered through a fine-tuning session at Roehampton yesterday. It was an entirely predictable move following Thursday's outburst by Dick Best, who accused his old colleague of, among other things, "avoiding confrontation at all costs". Had Rowell appeared, a confrontation with the press would have been inevitable.
Nevertheless, he will have to take complete responsibility for the performance of his team today, simply because it is his team. Rowell inherited a settled and successful line-up from his predecessor, Geoff Cooke, in 1994 and has been criticised for failing to stamp his own personality on the line- up. This time, though, he has bitten the bullet; with a third of the side entirely new to international rugby, no one can accuse him of inhabiting the comfort zone.
The risk is all the greater because three of the new caps are in the crucial spine of the side, Chris Sheasby, the Wasps No 8, his club-mate Andy Gomarsall at scrum-half and Stimpson at the back. The other two backbone positions are equally vulnerable in so far as Mark Regan, the Bristol hooker, has only one full season of international rugby behind him and has not played a serious game in more than a month while Catt is renewing his attempt to make the outside-half berth his own after a campaign at full-back last year.
In contrast, the key Italian positions are filled by seasoned performers. Dominguez is partnered at half-back by Alessandro Troncon, who is regarded as one of the most gifted scrum-halves in Europe.
Typically, Catt was in bullish mood yesterday, promising to invest in a dynamic style of rugby despite the inexperience around him. "I am quite prepared to admit that when you play the game as fast as I try to, mistakes are liable to occur. I believe, though, that it is a price worth paying. If you can get everyone around you playing at pace and with attacking intent, the successes should outweigh the failures."
Stimpson knows the score,
ENGLAND v ITALY
T Stimpson Newcastle 15 J Pertile Roma
J Sleightholme Bath 14 P Vaccari Calvisano
P de Glanville (capt) Bath 13 S Bordon Rovigo
W Carling Harlequins 12 I Francescato Treviso
A Adebayo Bath 11 L Manteri Treviso
M Catt Bath 10 D Dominguez Milan
A Gomersall Wasps 9 A Troncon Milan
G Rowntree Leicester 1 M Cuttitta Milan
M Regan Bristol 2 C Orlandi Milan
J Leonard Harlequins 3 F Properzi Milan
M Johnson Leicester 4 W Cristofoletto Treviso
S Shaw Bristol 5 C Chiccinato Treviso
L Dallaglio Wasps 6 M Giovanelli (capt) Puc
C Sheasby Wasps 8 O Arancio Milan
T Rodber Northampton 7 C Covi Padova
Referee: P Deluca (Argentina). Kick-off: 3.0 (BBC1).Reuse content