Rugby Union: England wary of Italian hit men

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The Independent Online
ITALY MAY be struggling in the piano-playing department, but their piano shifters have arrived in Yorkshire in sufficient numbers to ensure their English opponents a highly physical World Cup qualifying battle at Huddersfield's McAlpine Stadium on Sunday. Hence Clive Woodward's decision to pack Phil de Glanville, a mere centre, back home to Bath and bring Danny Grewcock, a second row who could not be described as a mere anything, onto the bench in his place.

"They're going to be pumped up for this one, the Italians, and it will certainly be a hard old game up front," Woodward said by way of justifying a replacement pool positively stacked with forward muscle.

Austin Healey's priceless versatility permits this unusually top heavy five-two split between substitute forwards and backs. In light of the intense nature of England's remaining pre-Christmas schedule - they play the Wallabies at Twickenham tomorrow week and go toe to toe with the world champions of South Africa seven days later - Woodward can hardly be blamed for taking every precaution available to him and the presence of Grewcock, Tim Rodber and Richard Hill in the dug-out gives him a good deal of spare tonnage with which to play.

Woodward has sensibly resisted the temptation to tinker with a starting line-up barely inconvenienced, let alone tested, by an outclassed Dutch outfit last Saturday; Dan Luger wins a second, more meaningful, cap on the wing while Martin Corry retains his hard-earned place at No 8. Twelve months ago, the coach would probably have conducted all manner of weird and wonderful experiments, but yesterday, for the first time since he succeeded Jack Rowell in the autumn of last year, he felt able to name an unchanged side.

"In many ways I picked last weekend's team with Italy in mind," he revealed after a gentle walk-through training session at Leeds University. "The Dutch gave it everything they had when they played us but, with the best will in the world, it's difficult to find out the things you need to know about players and combinations when you're getting 80 per cent possession. We face an extremely serious contest this time and, by the end of it, I'll have some very clear ideas, some information of real value."

Sadly for an Italian squad desperate to punch their weight following a depressing misfire at Twickenham almost exactly two years ago, their back division has been all but emasculated by injuries to their superb wings, Paolo Vaccari and Marcello Cuttitta. They have lost some very decent forwards, too - Andrea Sgorlon, Carlo Orlandi and Franco Properzi Curti are among the unavailables - although their sharp-end strength has more depth to it. "I have complete and utter faith in the players around me," asserted Massimo Giovanelli, their flanker and captain, following the 67-7 defeat of the Dutch on Wednesday night, "but the absence of so much experience adds even more importance to our mental preparation."

England confidently expect their opponents to prepare in time-honoured Latin style and come out steaming. "I watched them beat Argentina in Piacenza a fortnight ago and, while it was no great spectacle for the purist, there were some very big hits going in," said Woodward, almost flinching at the memory.

"Since England first played them at full international level in the 1991 World Cup they have brought a hard, physical dimension to their game. We too are physical, though, and I would hate to be associated with an England side that failed to use its prowess in that direction." Time to dust off the old crash helmet, obviously.

Scotland will need to be every bit as physical as their English neighbours if they are to stand an earthly of upsetting Gary Teichmann's Grand Slam- hunting Springboks at Murrayfield tomorrow and, sure enough, Jim Telfer's final selection reflected the harsh reality of the situation. The addition of Peter Walton, 18 stones worth of prime back-row beef, to their loose combination and the introduction of John Leslie, a hard-nut New Zealander from the Otago School of rib rearrangers, to their midfield, sent out the bluntest of messages to the tourists.

However, Telfer has sacrificed footballing class on the altar of big- hit defence by confining to the bench Gregor Townsend, comfortably the most imaginative player to emerge from Scotland since John Rutherford. Without him the Scottish back division looks distinctly one-dimensional, although Alan Tait's know-how and Derrick Lee's pace may just be sufficient to ask a question or two of the South Africans.

Squads, teams,

Digest, page 31

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