It is a horrible match for England – so horrible, it conjures images of Argentina's visit to Twickenham in 2006, which left Andy Robinson's team up to their necks in the brown stuff and sent the coach hurtling down the black run towards P45 territory. There were mitigating circumstances – the Pumas were far better than the paying public had assumed; Robinson had been betrayed by the money-grabbers who lumbered him with an unwanted fixture with the All Blacks six days before the one game he could not afford to lose – but who cared? England were not supposed to lose at home to a bunch of South Americans, and that was that.
England are not supposed to lose to Italy, either. The fact that five of the Azzurri pack – not to mention the centre Mirco Bergamasco – would find a place in Brian Ashton's line-up is neither here nor there in terms of public perception. The great unwashed can just about stomach their team finishing second to Wales, even when they invent brand new ways of messing things up as they did last weekend, but they will not accept a defeat in Rome. It just isn't done, apparently.
All of which makes this a hazardous moment for Ashton. He is not feeling the heat in the way his predecessor was two autumns ago – not even English sports followers can forget a march to a World Cup final in the space of 16 weeks – but if things go wrong tomorrow, the rest of this Six Nations Championship will be a pain in the butt. And they could go wrong, as the coach acknowledges.
"If the game develops in a certain way, Italy will be very difficult to beat," he said this week. "We have to ensure it doesn't unfold in that way."
In other words, England must tread the fine line between meeting the challenge posed by the formidable Italian forwards and avoiding getting involved in anything resembling a wrestling match. This requires a mix of wit, discipline and physicality in which the elements come together in equal measure, and with Andrew Sheridan and two senior open-side flankers off limits through injury, there is no guarantee the visiting pack will shape the contest to their own liking.
"Italy are closing the gap that existed between them and the other major European sides when they joined this tournament eight years ago," continued Ashton, who played for a couple of Italian clubs in the 1970s and also cut a few coaching teeth in Milan. "Is there a comparison to be made between this match and the one against Argentina? If there is, it isn't an issue for me. But the rugby public should understand that while Italy didn't do quite as well as they would have hoped at the World Cup, they are improving dramatically as a Test side."
This was not a case of Ashton getting his excuses in early, for he expects to put some clear water between the two matches under discussion by winning here, despite being railroaded into making personnel changes he would rather have avoided. "I didn't expect the side to be in its transition phase quite this soon, but it's happened," he said. "Some people argued for radical change in the immediate aftermath of the World Cup, but I tried not to forget the importance of loyalty and continuity. However, we've had a couple of retirements and a lot of injuries since then, and we've had no choice but to introduce some young players. It doesn't worry me. In some ways, I prefer it."
Curiously, England's regular Six Nations victories over the Italians, who have never won an international match of any description against the former world champions, have been more decisive at Stadio Flaminio, where they have generally scored heavily after breaking down the Azzurri in the first half, than at Twickenham, where they tend to open up an early lead and then concede possession to their opponents for the rest of the afternoon. But even here, there has been a narrowing of the gulf. In 2000, England won 59-12. Two years ago, they won 31-16.
Italy rarely send the scoreboard spinning wildly – they declare a national holiday if they pass the 30-point mark – and with an apprentice outside-half like Andrea Masi calling the shots, it is difficult to imagine them rattling up more than 25 tomorrow. Masi was, and is, a fine centre who likes a tackle so much, he makes Jonny Wilkinson look like Arwel Thomas. Unfortunately for Nick Mallett, the Azzurri coach, the finer arts associated with the No 10 role remain something of a mystery to the Biarritz player.
There again, Wilkinson did not exactly add to the sum of rugby knowledge last weekend. It would be just like him to react by kicking eight from eight, taking his team out of reach. First, though, he will need the ball, and as England are likely to be under far greater pressure at scrum and line-out than against Wales, possession could be more a luxury than a staple for long periods of time.
A year ago at Twickenham, the Italians split the try-count and finished only 13 points adrift – a result that came as a shock to the English system. There will be nothing even mildly surprising about a similar result tomorrow.
Due a loss? Why England do not want to make history
England have not lost to Italy in the 13 matches between the sides since their first game in 1991, but tomorrow's game may be their toughest challenge yet. England are also undefeated against Canada, Fiji, Georgia, Japan, the Netherlands, Romania, [Western] Samoa, Tonga, USA and Uruguay. England's first defeats to their major opponents are:
England lost in 4th match. Argentina 15 England 13 in Buenos Aires, 4 August 1990
England lost in first match. England 3 Australia 9 in Blackheath, 9 January 1909
England lost in 17th match. France 3 England 0 in Paris, 2 April 1927
England lost in 13th match. Ireland 2 England 0 in Dublin, 5 February 1887
* ALL BLACKS/NEW ZEALAND
England lost in 2nd match. England 0 All Blacks 15 in Crystal Palace, 2 February 1905. * First match was against New Zealand at Blackheath, London, on 16 Feb 1889, England won 7-0.
England lost in first match. Scotland 4 England 1 in Edinburgh, 27 March 1871
* SOUTH AFRICA
England lost in second match. England 3 South Africa 9 at Twickenham, 4 January 1913.
England lost in seventh match. England 0 Wales 1 in Dewsbury, 15 February 1890
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