Expectation. It's a fact of life in top-level sport, but that doesn't make it easier to bear for the people at the sharp end. I get the impression that after last week's excellent performance in the Calcutta Cup match, where England impressed by setting the correct tempo and putting Jonny Wilkinson and Andy Farrell in places where they could exert a strong measure of control, the Twickenham crowd now anticipate a big win against Italy.
This brings its own problems. Why? Because the Italians are capable of posing a very different set of challenges, and when a team are confronted by something different, any hint of complacency is a dangerous thing.
I am not suggesting that the coaches and players will be complacent. The leaders in the squad will have stepped up their efforts in training over the last few days and set fresh standards for the rest to meet. But it's impossible to stop the rugby public getting carried away, especially when someone like Wilkinson captures the headlines.
England have been here before. On many occasions during my time in the international set-up, I found us going into a home match where the level of expectancy was unrealistic. At times, the Twickenham supporters seemed to assume victory. That wasn't the case before last Saturday's game. I was at the stadium, and the atmosphere was tremendous - a spine-tingling mix of hope and exhilaration. As it turned out, England's rugby lifted the crowd. Now, it is the crowd's turn to lift England. Let's keep the noise level high and the reaction positive.
More than anything, the supporters must show patience and appreciate the fact that victories are earned. England established a really strong platform up front against the Scots, both at the set pieces and in their driving game. Can they repeat this against a much stronger Italian pack?
It will take some doing. They will look for the same kind of start, and if Nick Easter can get into the contest early with one or two of the big ball-carries that characterise his game, it is possible that we'll see Italy on the back foot. But they are no mugs, the Azzurri. They scrummaged well after a flaky start last weekend, and made a mess of the French line-out on numerous occasions. I'm very confident England will win the game, but the forwards will know they've been in a contest.
Another word about you-know-who
My comments last week on the subject of Wilkinson's return to the side sparked quite a controversy. I believed then that they were valid, and believe it still. I had no doubt he would play a blinder against the Scots - that really wasn't the issue. What concerned me was his reserve of fitness, his capacity to peak week after week for big international matches coming at him thick and fast. Following the game, Jonny himself admitted that his powers of recovery after so little rugby were an unknown quantity, so there you have it.
Anyway, what is sport about if it's not about opinion? And what is opinion worth if it is always offered after the event? Anyone can talk authoritatively with the value of hindsight.
Believe me, I was as delighted as every other rugby supporter that Jonny came through in the way he did. The part of his game that really pleased me was his kicking from hand. He asked so many questions of the opposition with the variety of his punting - the chips, the centre-field bombs, the long-range probes to the open side of the field. Having Jonny out there in the middle gives you a better than even chance of taking each and every opportunity, which is precisely what a team needs to do in terms of building a performance.
The moment the Scots equalised at 3-3, Jonny put over a drop-goal to make it 6-3. No fuss, no bother - and no chance for the opposition to feel good about themselves. This is the key to winning rugby. The aim in every match is to establish a 15-point lead, because you know you're in business with that sort of advantage. Against the Springboks in November we got to 14-3 and found it wasn't enough to close down the contest. Even when you're committed to a fully integrated attacking game, you still need someone nailing those three-pointers for you. Jonny does it phenomenally well.
So what happened to Italy?
I tipped Italy to beat the French, which is why I always preferred a rugby ball to a crystal ball. Why did they fail to deliver? Simple. They let their early chances go begging and paid the price against opponents who rarely need a second invitation when it comes to handouts. There were two or three moments in the opening 10 minutes when Italy should have had points on the board. Their spurning of those opportunities changed the face of the game.
I'll be interested to see how Italy respond today, because there were aspects of the Scottish performance against England that could easily work for them. In the first half, Dan Parks repeatedly kicked Scotland into good positions in the England 22, from where they eventually scored a try. The tactics were spot on. Scotland simply didn't have the firepower or the speed of possession to hurt England from distance, so instead of moving the ball deep in their own half, as they did after the break, they should have kicked some more.
The lesson will not be lost on Pierre Berbizier, the Italy coach. With a strong scrummage and a destructive line-out at his disposal, he'll tell them to play for territory and apply pressure that way.
Can Ireland win without O'Driscoll?
No one watching Ireland play in Cardiff could have been in any doubt as to how much Brian O'Driscoll meant to them. He made the first try for Rory Best with a chargedown - an object lesson in pressuring an opposing outside-half - and scored the second himself with a perfect finish tight to the touchline. He tackled like a fourth back-row forward and looked dangerous whenever he went near the ball. Now, suddenly, he is hamstrung, and the Irish are without him.
I believe France, buoyant after events in Rome, will produce a performance at Croke Park tomorrow. They seem to be relishing the challenge and I don't blame them.
This game has become a rite of passage for the home side, for they have been posed a simple but hugely significant question: can they win a big match without the world's best outside centre? Any team with ambitions of reaching the very top of the international game have to win in adversity somewhere along the line. We will discover a good deal about Ireland this weekend.
I felt sorry for Wales
No, honestly. I know what it's like to climb the walls over a refereeing performance, and I can understand Gareth Jenkins' frustration with some of the decisions that swung last week's Wales-Ireland game at the Millennium Stadium away from the home side. The Irish were allowed to slow up an awful lot of Welsh ball. In addition, Wales had a driving maul pulled down deliberately - Kelvin Deaker, the New Zealand official, had a big call to make there and made it in Ireland's favour - and also had a big shout for a penalty try rejected when Chris Czekaj was illegally tackled by Simon Easterby. From where I was sitting, it was a definite try. I've seen them awarded for less.
When a referee is indecisive in the tackle area teams will cheat all day long. Everyone does it if they can get away with it - the All Blacks are the undisputed kings of testing out a referee and playing on his weaknesses.
Time for a weekend off
I feel really strongly about this, so here goes: if we're serious about England winning this tournament - and I'm sure Brian Kennedy of Sale and Tom Walkinshaw, good Scots both, are as keen as any of us to see it happen - no member of Brian Ashton's first team should play Premiership rugby for their clubs next weekend. The blokes on the bench will need some rugby as the Six Nations takes a short break, but not the starting XV.
Of course, if we're not serious about it, then Phil Vickery should turn out for Wasps against Sale and the three Leicester men in the pack should get themselves down to Sixways and spend the afternoon grappling with Worcester.
I think England should be looking to finish top, though, and with the backing of the owners and the directors of rugby, it's a legitimate ambition. If Brian and the conditioning staff are given carte blanche ahead of the game with Ireland a fortnight today, they can minimise the degree of physical deterioration in the squad and give the players the best chance of winning in Dublin for the first time since we nailed the Grand Slam in 2003.
Player to watch Louis Deacon (England, lock)
Remember that other lock forward from Leicester - what was his name, now? That's right, Martin Johnson. Well, I believe Louis Deacon is now in exactly the place Martin found himself in the early 1990s. Like his great predecessor in the England engine room, Louis is no one's idea of a showman. He is a workhorse, pure and simple, and as such he gives the pack a foundation on which to build. Could he ever be as good as Johnno? We'll see. He is certainly beginning to play a Johnsonesque role in his work at close quarters, and when you add to this his other skills - he is more comfortable on the ball than Martin was at a similar age, thanks to his experience in the back row - you begin to see how exciting a prospect he is. He'll be up against Marco Bortolami in the line-out this afternoon, which will tell a tale. But this is his moment, his chance to come of age.Reuse content