Healey enters pantheon of conquering heroes

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The Independent Online

It was the day on which Effingham and Leatherhead RFC came to the Piazza Navona, the Pantheon and St Peter's Square, there to mingle with a different sort of pilgrim. A new kind of day out for the men and women of England's rugby heartlands, and one that they will be looking forward to repeating, not just because of the satisfactory result of Saturday's match here.

No one would pretend that the Eternal City was gripped by the prospect of the first meeting between Italy and England in the Six Nations' Championship, but on a fine spring afternoon Rome did the tournament proud. The half-hour stroll from the Piazza del Popolo to the ground was brightened by the sight of the president of Ferrari, Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, cheerfully looking for a space the size of a thousand-lira note in which to park his 40-year-old Fiat 500. In the stadium's grandstand, Dino Zoff, once the magnificent goalkeeper of Juventus and Italy and now the coach of the national soccer squad, chatted with Massimo Giovanelli, the former captain of the rugby team.

Six thousand England supporters managed to equal the noise made by three times that number of Italians, but the visiting fans were as surprised as their players by the spirit with which the home team tried to seize the initiative in the opening minutes. Everyone knew what had happened to Scotland in the little stadium beneath the gardens of the Villa Ella six weeks earlier, but no one seriously believed it could happen to England, at least until Italy recovered from conceding a blizzard of penalties in the opening minutes to score the first try after their furious multi-phase drive had exposed England's temporary lack of defensive resolve.

No doubt England were overconfident, an old failing which must have infuriated Clive Woodward. That the worst did not happen was thanks in large part to Austin Healey's eight-minute hat-trick early in the second half - a real hat-trick, too, in other words falling within cricket's definition, rather than the looser version preferred by soccer players. Bam, bam, bam - three tries in a row, without interruption, served to seal the match. But Woodward was not about to let it go to Healey's head.

"We're lucky to have him in the team," the coach conceded. "He can genuinely play in any position, including 9 and 10. So when Daws [Matt Dawson] is stuck at the bottom of a ruck, he can come in and do what's required. But as soon as we moved him to outside centre today, he missed a tackle. So that's what we're going to be talking about tonight, not his three tries."

Woodward had a half-smile on his face because he was only half-joking. Healey, due to win his 30th cap against Scotland, is the sort of chap whose self-confidence can easily get out of control, turning into something that coaches find counter-productive. But the Leicester wing is the first to acknowledge the flaw, and Woodward's role in helping to eradicate it.

"In the early days of my England career," Healey said on Saturday night, "my arrogance outweighed my ability. The coaches saw that it was becoming a problem and they stopped it. The Leicester coaching staff don't give me any credit. That's the way I like it, and that's the way I hope it stays. I don't know whether Clive's been talking to Deano [Dean Richards], but he definitely does the same. There have been times that I've been away in the clouds. He's brought me down to earth, and he makes sure I know for a fact that in order to be picked for England, I need to perform. That's a big motivating factor for me."

He even seems to have learnt how to administer the treatment to himself. He volunteered an apology for the missed tackle, and when I asked him if he had been pleased with the way he had started the second half by making two difficult high-ball catches, he grimaced and replied: "I was, until I sliced the second one into touch."

In fact they were stunning catches and, after a first half in which Healey had distinguished himself mainly by being the victim of the clothesline tackle with which Corrado Pilat conceded a penalty try in the 29th minute, they were of vital importance to England's cause. Italy had stayed on the pitch throughout the interval, huddling in the centre circle while Brad Johnstone tried to lift them out of the disappointment of turning round with a deficit of seven points to 23, their mood flattened by Pilat's failure to kick a simple penalty on the stroke of half-time. Could the Azzurri rekindle the fire with which they had begun the match? Healey stopped them.

A minute of the second half had gone when a kick was hoisted out of the Italian defence and into the England half. Healey had to run back, turn, adjust, and prepare to make the catch while Denis Dallan, 200lb of opposing wing, bore down on him, displaying hurtful intentions. The ball was pouched with coaching-manual neatness. The second catch, a minute later, was more demanding of Healey's skill. Chasing a high kick angled towards the corner, he had to make a classic over-the-shoulder take, and again completed the task with a display of perfect technique. In the circumstances, the sliced touch-finder was less than significant.

Within another three minutes, Healey was notching the first of his tries, taking Matt Perry's pass to touch down in the corner. His second was a piece of individual initiative, as he broke through the middle of the home defence and beat Pilat, the last man, with a neat kick-ahead to finish off under the posts. The third came after Jonny Wilkinson kicked with perfect judgement to allow Healey to meet the ball in the corner.

Even then he was not done, following up with a fine diagonal kick from which Ben Cohen, his fellow wing, touched down for the first of his tries. Healey's pass out of the tackle also provided Cohen with the opening for his second, bringing the young man a tally of five in four appearances in an England shirt.

Healey's own scoring record is not so impressive. "It's never really bothered me," he said. "I just go out there and try to get my hands on the ball. If I make tries, I've done my job. If I score them, it's a bonus. I haven't exactly got a prolific scoring record, for a winger - what is it now, 10 in 29? But it's not going to keep me awake at night."

He was anxious to shoulder his part of the blame for England's poor start. "I was slightly unprofessional in my approach, because I didn't expect to encounter the kind of ferocity that we did. The Italians were very hard to play against. It may have looked like we were completely on top in the second half, but I can tell you now it definitely wasn't the case. The tackles were hurting and they played a very good game."

So Rome proved the perfect host, its composure undisturbed by the English invasion. Almost disappointingly so, in fact. At midnight I wandered along to the Trevi fountain, keen to see if the entire England front row would displace as much water as Anita Ekberg. Not a sign. Tucked up in bed at their airport hotel, probably. O tempora! O mores!