Dallaglio's gladiators prepare for onslaught

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The Independent Online

Once in an Azzurri-blue moon, the rugby players of Italy give England the kind of fright Don Corleone reserved for people who forgot to call him "Godfather". They scared the living daylights out of Will Carling's team during the 1995 World Cup; three years later, they reduced Martin Johnson's side to a near-terminal state of panic in Huddersfield, of all places. Tomorrow, they will attempt to petrify the champions of everything in the more familiar surroundings of Stadio Flaminio, a dangerous little hot-spot on the banks of the Tiber.

Following that nasty little trauma in 1998, a loose forward armed with some Italian ancestry and the striking name of Lawrence Bruno Nero Dallaglio returned from injury to guide the red rose army to a watershed victory over Gary Teichmann's Springboks - the last South African side of serious quality. The captain Italy might have had, but for the fact that he spent his youth in the King's Road rather than the Via del Corso, could usefully bring those inspirational qualities to bear on the day's proceedings.

Statistically speaking - and few international teams on earth place more emphasis on facts and figures, from basic tackle-counts and line-out assessments to the more technical computer-aided individual player evaluations - England are heavily favoured to wipe the floor with their hosts, as they have done on a fairly regular basis over the past 13 years. In last season's Six Nations' Championship, for instance, the Grand Slammers achieved a strike-rate of 18 tries in five matches, 33 per cent better than Italy's. They gave their wings the ball on more than 100 occasions - the Italians managed this passing feat just 55 times - and, thanks to Jonny Wilkinson, missed only three of 31 shots at goal.

But Wilkinson will not be there tomorrow. Neither will Johnson, who recovered from his embarrassment at the McAlpine Stadium to establish himself as the outstanding leader in English rugby history. These are the kinds of facts that John Kirwan likes. "It gives us hope," the Azzurri coach said yesterday. "Wilkinson can punish you for every transgression and kick you out of the game in minutes. Johnson was a captain for pressure situations, a player who would stand up tall and take control. With a bit of luck, we won't be confronting those sorts of problems this time."

Kirwan has other problems, though. Saddled with a back division renowned for inventing news of not scoring, he has lost his most influential play-maker in the shape of scrum-half and captain Alessandro Troncon and his most dangerous open-field runner, the full-back Gonzalo Canale. Both are injured. In their stead, he has selected a fellow New Zealander, Paul Griffen, at half-back, and the utility back from the Viadana club, Andrea Masi.

"Griffen is different to Troncon: very quick on his feet and a sharp thinker, he will play a looser type of game," Kirwan said. "Masi? I'm looking forward to seeing what he can do at full-back. Some people see him as Italy's new Paolo Vaccari, and if that turns out to be the case, we'll have a good player on our hands. Canale is an exciting talent and we'll miss him, but this is a big opportunity for Andrea." Confident words, certainly. But there was a look in Kirwan's eye that betrayed acute disappointment at losing two of his classier acts.

Clive Woodward was rather more convincing as he weighed up his team's prospects after Johnson's retirement and without Wilkinson. "The intensity is right there; in that regard, the atmosphere is no different to that generated during the World Cup campaign," he said. "These are big-match players I'm dealing with here, and they love this environment, this sense of sporting theatre. Sure, we've lost some big characters through injury and retirement and the normal selection process, but there are people in this team, the Danny Grewcocks and Joe Worsleys, who are desperate to make their mark. The changes to the team have given us an extra edge."

Woodward has been known to suffer the odd funny five minutes in this city; conscious of the close shave in Huddersfield, which left him with an omelette's worth of egg on his face, he has allowed the Italians to get to him on more than one occasion. But yesterday, he was a picture of serenity. He believes Paul Grayson, the man charged with making light of Wilkinson's absence, will play a blinder: "He is such a strong character, and in terms of kicking out of hand, he has gifts that leave Jonny playing catch-up", and expects the reinstated Dallaglio to lay down a marker as England's long-term captain.

Assuming both captain and stand-off survive a fiery opening from a high-calibre Italian pack, Woodward can look forward to a 20-point victory.