England look a certainty despite Johnson's caution

Illness in the camp likely to pose more of a problem for visitors than weak Italy side
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The Independent Online

It will be a very funny Valentine indeed if England contrive to lose to Italy at Stadio Flaminio tomorrow.

The red-rose hierarchy are uncomfortably aware that the entire rugby universe will die laughing if victory goes the way of the Azzurri, which is why Martin Johnson, the manager, has spent the entire week talking up a threat that barely exists. On average, the former world champions score 40-plus points and win by nearly 30 on their visits to Rome. No team turns that sort of record around in the space of a single game, not even one played in snow.

The weather in the Eternal City yesterday was wintry enough to freeze the marble off a statue of Marcus Aurelius and England drove smack bang into trouble as a result, taking 90 minutes to negotiate a trip to training that should have taken them a quarter of an hour. At the end of the session, Johnson ended speculation about the make-up of his replacements' bench by picking Matt Mullan, the uncapped Worcester prop, ahead of Ben Foden, the increasingly frustrated Northampton full-back.

"It's the right call to name an entire substitute front row for this game, especially in these conditions," the manager explained. "The way we are looking to play, the front row will have to work hard in bringing the fatigue factor to bear on the Italians. It limits your options in the back-line when you do this and it's pretty rough on Ben, but he understands the reasons." That may be so, but to understand all is not necessarily to forgive all. An early injury between the numbers of 10 and 15 will leave England in an interesting position.

There again, it is by no means certain that Italy would find a way of capitalising. They are dreadfully limited in attack: Mirco Bergamasco may still be a handful, but there are good reasons to believe that the likes of Gonzalo Canale and Andrea Masi are past their best. What is more, they do not frighten opponents up front in the way they once did. Three members of the Azzurri pack – the prop Martin Castrogiovanni, the lock Marco Bortolami and the flanker Mauro Bergamasco – know what it is to be lauded as world-class, but Castrogiovanni is a little off-colour at the moment and the other two have fallen victim to the law of diminishing returns.

If their cause has not been helped by the withdrawal of the second-rower Carlo del Fava, who suffered a knee injury in training, the ever-decreasing supply of international big-hitters is only one of their problems. Another was flagged up in Dublin last week: a distinctly un-Italian lack of energy. "We were slow and predictable against Ireland," admitted their captain, the hooker Leonardo Ghiraldini. "If we are going to give ourselves a chance of surprising our opponents and making life difficult for them, we have to speed things up."

Over the course of their decade-long tour of duty in the Six Nations Championship, the Italians have rarely been accused of lacking passion. Back in the hang-'em-high days of Massimo Giovanelli and Walter Cristofoletto, there was if anything too much reliance on vim and vigour, to the extent that England's forwards were sometimes left wondering whether they had stumbled onto the set of a Spaghetti Western. These days, the Azzurri seem more likely to shoot themselves in the foot by being too conciliatory.

England's problems, such as they are, surround their own state of fitness – or, rather, unfitness. Steve Borthwick, who began his international leadership career in Rome two years ago and played a captain's innings by single-handedly resisting a late Italian comeback, trained for the first time yesterday after recovering from a stomach bug. While the line-out specialist from Saracens, outstanding in the victory over Wales last week, declared himself fine and dandy, it emerged that a number of other players – far more than the management were willing to let on – had suffered similar troubles.

"A lot of hard work went into that win against Wales, so to miss two days of training was frustrating," Borthwick admitted. "But it's a part of life and it was best that I was kept away from the other players. Things went well during my absence, with everyone understanding where we're at tactically. It's now up to me and the other decision-makers to get a feel for where we have an advantage over the Italians and hammer it home."

So often the butt of unwarranted criticism, a more valued Borthwick feels England are in a position to string together some results. For all his reluctance to shout the odds ahead of any game, so does Johnson. "Should we go into this match expecting to win? We know that if we perform, we can beat any team in the competition," the manager said, with an uncharacteristic touch of swagger. It did not last long. "We also know," he added, "that we can lose to any team."

Any team, surely, but this one. England have had their scratchy moments against the Azzurri down the years, most notably in a World Cup qualifier in Huddersfield back in 1998. But Italian rugby, uncompetitive domestically and over-reliant on Antipodean exiles – the Mcleans, the Gowers, the Soles, the Robertsons – is not what it was, sadly.

And we all thought Six Nations status would make them stronger.