Rugby Union: Tight five obliterate Italy

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England 54 Italy 21

Another year, another Jack Rowell mantra. This season's catchphrase, half sound bite and half credo, is "interactive rugby", and England's coach must have been tickled pink to think that at least a third of his side had actually been paying attention to all those video lounge team talks, training field exhortations and last-minute dressing-room addresses.

The tight forwards did their teacher proud as Italy subsided under the not inconsiderable weight of 17 hundredweight of prime English beef. Jason Leonard's coalface workers could not have interacted more fully had Rowell superglued their shirts together at the sleeves. They mixed, mingled and merged with such startling expertise that it took the visiting pack almost 50 minutes to free themselves from a very passable impersonation of an octagonal doormat.

Forget the old cliche about New Zealand packs and blankets; these boys were so cohesive you could have covered them with a pocket handkerchief. If rugby was a five-man game rather than a 15-man one, England would be world champions in perpetuity.

All Rowell needs to do now is convince the remainder of his team that the word "interaction" has a place in rugby manuals as well as sociology textbooks, for there was an all-too-familiar curate's egg flavour to some of England's play in the back-row and midfield. The Italians were denied possession for minutes on end yet the most memorable attacking contributions came from Javier Pertile, Paolo Vaccari and Ivan Francescato.

Still, England had to start rebuilding somewhere and the reality of rugby has always been that forwards win matches. Rowell certainly subscribes to that theory: he has always loved the heavy mob - he was, after all, a second row himself - and he could barely contain his delight after Saturday's record 54-21 defeat of a gifted and ambitious side who, in seeking to break into the cosy little club known as the Five Nations, claimed with some justification to be the equals of Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

"They're good news, the lot of them," the coach said of his front five. "You need a world-class setpiece if you're going to do anything in this game but these men can run with the ball as well as win it. We'll get the proof of the pudding soon enough because we're playing the New Zealanders next, but I thought they looked an outstanding unit with a big future."

The only shadow cast across their collective field day was the elbow injury suffered by Leonard deep in the final quarter - the 50-cap prop barrelled his way into the after-match banquet with his arm in a sling - and with Sean Fitzpatrick and Olo Brown lying in wait this weekend, England cannot afford to lose their only front-row forward with personal experience of (All) Black Power.

Not even the misfortune that curtailed Leonard's landmark occasion could detract from the persuasive performance of his most immediate confederates, however. Graham Rowntree and Mark Regan turned in their best performances in a Test shirt while Martin Johnson, man of the match by a country mile and more, dragged Simon Shaw along in his slipstream and ensured that the new boy left an immediate and indelible print on the only stage that does full justice to his talents.

Italy helped the English on their way by getting it wrong in selection. Having lost three second rows of international class through injury, their coach, Georges Coste, compounded the situation by ignoring the productive Milan middle jumper Gianbattista Croci and lobbing two loose forwards, Carlo Checchinato and Walter Christofoletto, into the engine room. Not surprisingly, the line-out was more of a slaughter than a contest, but then the Italians know all about feeding Christians to the lions.

"It's very hard to play without the ball - we lost so many lineouts that it was difficult to find something to believe in," admitted the Italian captain, Massimo Giovanelli, with the air of a man who, apart from anything else, could scarcely believe his own line-up.

The result of all that set-piece dominance was entirely predictable. Andy Gomarsall, who spent most of his international debut making life a misery for Italy's hapless open-side flanker Corrado Covi, picked up two tries from close range, and there were similarly prosaic scores for Johnson, Lawrence Dallaglio and Chris Sheasby.

While Jon Sleightholme was able to wriggle free after a fumble from Leonardi Manteri, and Tim Rodber made the line unchallenged after the sweetest of inside passes from Phil de Glanville - cucumber cool as captain despite getting some "treatment" from the old Italian hit men - it was 90 per cent muscle and only 10 per cent finesse.

As for Mike Catt's goalkicking - he landed eight from 11 without having to deal with real pressure - the jury declared itself unable to reach a verdict and condemned him to a retrial against Fitzpatrick and company on Saturday. Curiously enough, Catt does not even have the full confidence of the man who burdened him with the job in the first place, let alone the massed ranks of Twickenham pundits. "He did better than I expected, God bless him," said Rowell with his customary degree of inscrutability.

If truth be told, the Italians did rather less well than anticipated. Giovanelli, clearly disappointed, admitted that his countrymen were not yet equipped to meet either England or France on level terms, saying: "If the Five Nations were to become Six, it would be easier for us to play such strong sides. At the moment, rugby is the sixth, perhaps the eighth, most popular sport in our country. We play in front of 150 people a week and we do not have the space in the newspapers or on television. We are alone." For all their problems at Twickenham, it is time for the Five Nations administrators to pull the Italians into the huddle.

England: Tries Gomarsall 2, Sleightholme, Dallaglio, Johnson, Rodber, Sheasby; Conversions Catt 5; Penalties Catt 3. Italy: Tries Vaccari, Troncon, Arancio; Conversions Dominguez 3.

ENGLAND: T Stimpson (Newcastle); J Sleightholme (Bath), W Carling (Harlequins), P de Glanville (Bath, capt), A Adebayo (Bath); M Catt (Bath), A Gomarsall (Wasps); G Rowntree (Leicester), M Regan (Bristol), J Leonard (Harlequins), M Johnson (Leicester), S Shaw (Bristol), T Rodber (Northampton), C Sheasby (Wasps), L Dallaglio (Wasps). Replacements: R Hardwick (Coventry) for Leonard, 68; P Greening (Gloucester) for Regan, 76; K Bracken (Saracens) for Gomarsall, 80.

ITALY: J Pertile (Roma); P Vaccari (Calvisano), S Bordon (Rovigo), I Francescato (Treviso), L Manteri (Treviso); D Dominguez (Milan), A Troncon (Treviso); M Cuttitta (Milan), C Orlandi (Milan), F Properzi Curti (Milan), C Checchinato (Treviso), W Christofoletto (Treviso), M Giovanelli (PUC France, capt), O Arancio (Milan), C Covi (Padova). Replacements: G Guidi (Livorno) for Troncon 31-34; A Sgorlon (Treviso) for Covi, 5; A Baratin (Tarvisium) for Christofoletto, 80.

Referee: P de Luca (Argentina).