England march on Rome wary of Italians with keen sense of history

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The Independent Online

The Stadio Flaminio, where England place their new-found status as favourites for the Six Nations title under the microscope this afternoon, is no more than a gentle half-hour's stroll from the Vatican City, where Italian rugby followers have frequently felt the need to seek spiritual sustenance since their national team finally succeeded in breaking into one of the oldest and best protected élites in world sport.

There are still those who prefer the Five Nations of yesteryear to the expanded version that was launched in 2000. The Azzurri realise that to shut such individuals up once and for all, they must take a significant scalp.

By which they mean beating either England or France. In their first tournament match in the early weeks of the century, Italy defeated Scotland 34-20. They have since beaten Wales and turned over the Scots again.

And, but for some particularly peculiar refereeing from England's Dave Pearson in Dublin last weekend, they would probably have broken their duck against the Irish.

High-fiving it against the Celtic nations is a very different bowl of linguine to downing one of the big two, however. The Italians know the importance of taking the world champions to the wire today, and the world champions know they know.

"I very much hope we score some early points and get the thing won in the first 20 minutes, as we have on previous occasions," said Andy Robinson, the England coach, yesterday. "But we all understand we're facing a great battle here. If we're sloppy at the set pieces, give away penalties and allow the Italians to establish a foothold in the game, we may find ourselves having to use our bench players to win, which is not a position in which we tend to find ourselves against these opponents."

Steve Thompson, the hooker from Northampton, described the challenge in more graphic terms. "They're big men, these Italian forwards, and while they sometimes get themselves in the wrong positions, their philosophy is to hit you anyway. They don't crumble, they don't give in. No matter what the score might be, they keep on hitting. As they have become much more of an 80-minute team, they're more dangerous now than at any time in the past."

Italy prosper against sides who cannot field tight-five units built like snow-covered Dolomites or back-row trios who combine ton-of-bricks tackling with even-time sprinting. Unfortunately for them, England and France have always been capable of squaring, if not winning, the wrestling bout up front while running rings round the Azzurri backs. In the half-dozen Six Nations matches between the two, England have frequently suffered long barren spells, when the Italian forwards have exerted considerable territorial pressure, when possession has been reduced to a trickle. Yet they average more than 52 points a game.

Why? Because English firepower has been far more explosive than the Italian version. The likes of Jason Robinson, who scored a hat-trick of tries in the last fixture here almost exactly two years ago, frequently exposed the Azzurri , secure in the knowledge that the opposition had nothing remotely comparable in their attacking arsenal. Has this changed, even one iota? The Italians believe so.

In all probability, they now have the most potent back division in their history. Cristian Stoica has been exploring the highways and byways of the professional game for the best part of a decade; Ramiro Pez knows what it is to play Premiership rugby in England; Mirco Bergamasco is a first choice for Stade Français, who make it their business not to employ no-hopers; Gonzalo Canale, a super-smart operator playing for Clermont Auvergne, can hold his head high in the very best company.

The upshot is that England may find themselves having to work harder, and for longer, to draw the sting from the Italian resistance. Indeed, the forwards may not get much of a break at all. "Look at their bench," Thompson said. "They have two of the best props in Europe, Andrea Lo Cicero and Martin Castrogiovanni, among their replacements. It's all a front-row forward needs, isn't it? You take an hour to subdue your opponents at the set piece, only to find these blokes running on for the last 20 minutes."

As England will look to Charlie Hodgson's goal-kicking as much as the quality finishers in the back three to provide them with the security they crave, it was slightly odd to discover they had not bothered to practise under the Stadio Flaminio floodlights. The match starts at 5pm local time, which means only the first half will be played in daylight. During Sir Clive Woodward's stewardship of the side, nothing was left to chance - indeed, Woodward preferred not to allow his players anywhere near an international match before they had undergone eyesight tests conducted by a visual awareness specialist. Here, Hodgson will find himself doing his thing in unfamiliar surroundings, and in artificial light to boot.

"We're happy with what we've done," said Robinson, more relaxed than at any point since beating South Africa at Twickenham 15 months ago. "These people play enough night fixtures to know what's what, and anyway, we often train under lights back home."

All the same, it is an interesting one. England have not won outside London since the 35-13 victory over Scotland at Murrayfield in the second game of the 2004 tournament; Robinson has won precisely no games on the road since succeeding Woodward as top dog. The likelihood of that sorry record being intact when the New Zealand official Kelvin Deaker runs down the curtain on this game is not great - some of the bookmakers have England at 1-100-1 to prevail, and they are not noted for their generosity - but there is a feeling here that the Azzurri will ask an awkward question or two.

The three terrors Italy's prime threats to England

Cristian Stoica, the adventurer from the east

Stoica, who occasionally goes by the name of Alessandro but generally prefers Cristian, has played more Six Nations games - his appearance at full-back today will be his 25th - than any other member of the Azzurri. Born in Romania 29 years ago, he and his family left to make a new life for themselves in Italy, where he started playing serious rugby and quickly graduated to the Milan club, then something of a power in the land, and on to full-time professional status in France, first with Narbonne and then with Montpellier. He is a centre by instinct, whose recent donning of the No 15 shirt has re-established his reputation as one of the fixed points of the Italian game - as a strong physical presence in defence, a muscular runner in attack. Never less than dangerous.

Marco Bortolami, the lighthouse from Padua

Bortolami is one of world rugby's principal providers of possession. As possession is the oxygen that gives a team life, this makes him a very important figure indeed.

The Italian captain is a line-out operator of the highest calibre, as he demonstrated to all with eyes to see the moment he broke into the national team for the 2001 Test against Namibia. At 22, he was Italy's youngest rugby captain, and while the leadership role became something of a moveable feast as the Six Nations newcomers sacrificed continuity on the altar of short-termism, he is now settled in the job. Bortolami was one of the prodigies of the Italian game, playing first-class rugby as an 18-year-old. Had he stayed fit during the 2003 World Cup, the Italians might well have beaten Wales in a pivotal pool game and faced England in the quarter-finals. Still only 25, he now earns his living with Narbonne in Le Championnat.

Mauro Bergamasco, the flanker from rugby heaven

Not to be confused with his younger brother Mirco, Bergamasco is among the great heroes of the Italian game, every bit as celebrated as Diego Dominguez and Massimo Giovanelli. So quick that he has played Test rugby on the wing; so powerful that he has wrestled opposition packs to submission virtually single-handedly - on his day (and there have been many of them), he is one hell of an act. Generally speaking, players are not capable of delivering an A-game as a destructive tackler while running in the odd try from 50 metres. Count Bergamasco as one of the exceptions. He has been performing at Test level since 1998, the year in which he scared the living daylights out of Clive Woodward's England team in a World Cup qualifier in Huddersfield. A top-notch Heineken Cup performer for both Padua and Treviso, he is now tied up in Paris on a big-euro contract with Stade Français. Back in Italy, football-obsessed sports followers revere him as a titan.