England on their last legs. Already

The red-rose brigade's last tilt at the Six Nations was hit by injury in the first game – this year, their troubles have started even earlier
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The Independent Online

Italy will arrive at Twickenham this afternoon without a scrum-half to their name – however versatile the mighty flanker Mauro Bergamasco considers himself to be, he has never pretended to be Gareth Edwards – but their trials and tribulations are as nothing compared with England's tale of woe. No Jonny Wilkinson nor Toby Flood, no Tom Rees nor Lewis Moody, no Tom Palmer nor, for very different and infinitely worse reasons, Matt Stevens ... and now, it seems, no Mike Tindall either.

The World Cup-winning centre did himself a mischief during a gym session at the team base in Surrey and spent yesterday in the care of a medical team, who held out little hope of a quick recovery. Within minutes of hearing of this latest orthopaedic mishap – Tindall (below), recalled to the senior team this week after paying the price for a disappointing contribution in New Zealand last summer, was diagnosed as suffering from a jarred back – the manager Martin Johnson summoned the demoted Jamie Noon from his home on Tyneside. The Newcastle midfielder headed south immediately and may well start ahead of his former clubmate Mathew Tait, who was named on the bench in the initial selection.

If things duly turn out this way, Tait will be close to despair. The most gifted attacking outside centre in the country has been given depressingly few opportunities to test opposition defences with his pace and guile, even though he split open the Springboks in the 2007 World Cup final. Brian Smith, the Australian in charge of England's "offence", seems intent on running a bash-bosh merchant in the No 13 position, rather than a more creative spirit. This policy has had precious little to recommend it thus far.

Johnson tried his best to put a brave face on things yesterday, but he was less than amused to find yet another gremlin in the England machinery. "We have to get on with it," he said.

"We can't sit around complaining that we've lost X, Y and Z." Unfortunately for him, those are just about the only three initials not featuring on the casualty list ahead of a Six Nations Championship that looks positively lethal from the red-rose perspective.

Last year, their tournament prospects were adversely affected by injury during the opening match. This time, the setbacks have not had the good grace to wait even that long. Had Johnson been blessed with just a little good fortune, today's starting line-up would have looked radically different. The Italians, meanwhile, travel with something approaching their optimum line-up, leaving aside the single-position epidemic that has cost them the services of three specialist No 9s.

Can the Azzurri really pose a meaningful threat? They will in the set pieces, if nowhere else. England's scrum was less than brilliant during the autumn internationals: the much-mocked Wallaby front row had all sorts of fun with Andrew Sheridan and company, and there was a costly loss of control against the All Blacks, too. "We weren't good enough in that area," Johnson admitted yesterday. "A strong scrum won't necessarily win you a game on its own, but if you get things wrong at important moments, it can lose you one. The Italians will be very competitive in this area and it will be a big battle, so we need to improve."

True enough. But England need to improve in all sorts of areas: in their drills at the breakdown, in the execution of their tactical kicking game, in their decision-making, in their discipline. It is all very well for Johnson to argue, as he frequently does, that his team dominated possession and territory for long spells against the three major southern hemisphere tourists in November, but there is no escaping the fact that Australia, South Africa and New Zealand ran in nine tries between them while England accumulated the grand total of one.

It used to be the case that England found scoring easier against the Italians than against any other serious opposition, but in the last two meetings between the nations, they have found their way across the Azzurri line on only three occasions. Not that this is the most striking statistic attaching itself to today's contest. Try this one for size: there are only three survivors from the England team that started the last time Italy played in London, a mere two years ago, and that figure will be cut by 33 per cent if and when Tindall admits defeat to his back spasms. Italy, by contrast, have hung on to more than half of their side.

So many players have disappeared off the red-rose radar since that 20-7 victory under Brian Ashton, and we are not talking here about the injured – Wilkinson, for instance – or the retired, who include Martin Corry, Jason Robinson and Josh Lewsey. The likes of Perry Freshwater and Louis Deacon, Danny Grewcock and Magnus Lund, Andy Farrell and Iain Balshaw are still playing and, theoretically, still available for selection. No other country in world rugby, with the possible exception of France, has played so fast and loose on the personnel front. A little consistency would be nice, but consistency is of value only when the right people are picked in the first place. As luck would have it, Johnson and his back-room colleagues may have stumbled on some of the correct players by default this week: certainly, the Leicester scrum-half Harry Ellis is better suited to England's current style than Danny Care of Harlequins, who went into a tailspin on some ice while making his way back from Tuesday's training run and wrenched an ankle joint.

What the former world champions need more than anything, however, is a win. Any kind of win. The days of "not if, but by how many" have long gone: Italy may not score shoals of points, but they rarely concede them by the gross, as they did in the early years of this decade. Johnson will settle for victory in whatever shape it comes. Yes, England have fallen this far.

England v Italy: Twickenham teams

England

15 D Armitage (L Irish)

14 P Sackey (Wasps)

13 M Tindall (Gloucester)

12 R Flutey (Wasps)

11 M Cueto (Sale)

10 A Goode (Brive)

9 H Ellis (Leicester)

1 A Sheridan (Sale)

2 L Mears (Bath)

3 P Vickery (Gloucester)

4 S Borthwick (Saracens, c)

5 N Kennedy (L Irish)

6 J Haskell (Wasps)

7 S Armitage (L Irish)

8 N Easter (Harlequins)

Replacements: 16 D Hartley (Northampton); 17 J White (Leicester); 18 T Croft (Leicester); 19 J Worsley (Wasps); 20 B Foden (Northampton); 21 S Geraghty (London Irish); 22 M Tait (Sale).

Italy

15 A Masi (Biarritz)

14 K Robertson (Viadana) 13 G Canale (C Auvergne)

12 G Garcia (Calvisano)

11 Mi Bergamasco (Stade)

10 A Marcato (Treviso)

9 Ma Bergamasco (Stade)

1 S Perugini (Toulouse)

2 F Ongaro (Saracens)

3 M Castrogiovanni (Leics)

4 S Dellape (Toulon)

5 M Bortolami (Gloucs)

6 J Sole (Viadana)

7 A Zanni (Calvisano)

8 S Parisse (Stade, capt) Replacements: 16 C Festuccia (Racing); 17 C Nieto (Gloucester); 18 T Reato (Rovigo); 19 J-F Montauriol (Venezia); 20 G Toniolatti (Capitolina); 21 L McLean; 22 M Pratichetti (both Calvisano).

Referee M Lawrence (South Africa)

Venue Twickenham; Kick-off 3pm

TV BBC 1

Six Nations Championship Schedule

Week 1 (7-8 Feb)

England v Italy (3.0)

Ireland v France (5.0)

Scotland v Wales (Sun, 3.0)



Week 2 (14-15 Feb)

France v Scotland (3.0)

Wales v England (5.30)

Italy v Ireland (Sun 2.30)



Week 3 (27-28 Feb)

France v Wales (Fri, 8.0)

Scotland v Italy (3.0)

Ireland v England (5.30)



Week 4 (14-15 Mar)

Italy v Wales (3.0)

Scotland v Ireland (5.30)

England v France (Sun, 3.0)



Week 5 (21 Mar)

Italy v France (1.15)

England v Scotland (3.30)

Wales v Ireland (5.30)

Jonno's Six Nation debuts: England firsts

As player

16 January 1993

England (13) 16 France (12) 15

Players usually have the opportunity to prepare for their international debut but not Johnson. He was called into the side as a last-minute replacement for Wade Dooley, afforded just a 20-minute emergency line-out session with his new team-mates. Nonetheless it was an assured performance from the rookie lock as England edged out France in this Five Nations opener.

ENGLAND J Webb (Bath); I Hunter (Northampton), W Carling (Harlequins, capt), J Guscott (Bath), R Underwood (Leicester); R Andrew (Wasps), D Morris (Orrell); J Leonard, B Moore (both Harlequins), J Probyn (Wasps), M Johnson (Leicester), M Bayfield (Northampton), M Teague (Moseley), B Clarke (Bath), P Winterbottom (Harlequins)

As captain

3 February 2001

Wales (8) 15 England (29) 44

Johnson was appointed England captain in 1999 after tabloid allegations forced Lawrence Dallaglio's resignation. Injury meant Jonno was unable to lead his side in the Six Nations until 2001 but it was worth the wait as England ran out comfortable winners in Cardiff.

ENGLAND Balshaw (Gloucester; Perry, Bath, 59); Cohen (Northampton), Greenwood (Leicester), Catt (Bath; Tindall, Bath, 65), Luger (Saracens; Healey, Leicester, 7); Wilkinson (Newcastle), Dawson (Northampton); Leonard (Harlequins; Woodman, Gloucester, 62), West (Leicester), Vickery (Gloucester), Johnson (Leicester, capt), Grewcock (Saracens), Hill (Saracens), Back (Leicester), Dallaglio (Wasps; Corry, Leicester, 69).

Ciaran McCauley

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