England vs Italy Six Nations: England have to kick on by smashing the Italians

England have won all 20 meetings with Italy

England have lost only one Six Nations game at Twickenham since Stuart Lancaster was asked to clean the red-rose stables following the spectacularly messy World Cup campaign three and a half years ago, and they didn’t lose it to Italy. Not to put too fine a point on it, they never lose to Italy anywhere – hence the widespread assumption that the long-suffering Azzurri will be splattered all over south-west London on Saturday afternoon.

It was precisely this level of swaggering expectation that preceded the close shaves in 1998, 2007 and 2013 – deeply uncomfortable games from the red-rose perspective that caused profound consternation in the coaching ranks. John Mitchell, the England forwards strategist of the time, reacted to the ’98 scare by damning his side as “the most predictable in Test rugby”, while nine years later, Brian Ashton could be seen rolling his eyes in world-weary frustration long before the final whistle.

Andy Farrell was one of England’s centres that day. Two years ago, as Lancaster’s principal lieutenant on the back-room staff, he was every bit as exasperated as Ashton. He knows as well as anyone, and better than most, that on a good day, Italy can be a pain in the nether regions – especially if their most potent player, the wondrous No 8 Sergio Parisse, decides to play the rugby of the gods. The great man has made 46 Six Nations starts and finished second in 37 of them, yet has still managed to earn himself an undisputed place in the union pantheon.

Farrell is wary of the Azzurri captain, and so he should be. He is even more suspicious of the Italian mindset as they head for the capital to play a game no one imagines they can win. “They’re a different rugby nation to us,” he said yesterday. “They play on emotion and that makes them dangerous in one-off situations. It’s true that they struggle to back up their big performances, to play well again the next week, but this will be far more of a cup final for them than last week’s home game with Ireland.

 

“So for us, the challenge is to put ourselves in the right emotional place and do what we did in Wales last week, which means focusing on the next job rather that getting too far ahead of ourselves. A game of rugby takes its own course, so if you go in with a fixed plan... well, it won’t fit the reality of what happens. I want us to be good enough to feel the momentum of the contest and influence it in the right way. Yes, we have some X-factor talents in the side now, but they can’t do much without front-foot ball. The match still has to be played.”

Parisse is not the only member of the Azzurri pack whose experience of the Six Nations good life is unusually rich by the standards of his underdog nation: that wild-haired swamp monster of a prop, Martin Castrogiovanni, and the lock Marco Bortolami, an old-stager who was once a new-ager, will bring vast know-how to the tight-five department. But the under-valued Alessandro Zanni is missing from the back row through injury, and that could undermine the visitors’ line-out routine. Unless Parisse touches the very heights and puts his direct opponent Billy Vunipola back into his very large box, England’s forwards are likely to find themselves in control of matters far earlier than is often the case.

Certainly, it will be a surprise if Chris Robshaw’s leadership skills are tested quite as ruthlessly as they were in Cardiff eight days ago. The Harlequins flanker has not been everyone’s cup of tea as captain over the three years of Lancaster’s stewardship, but he put his best foot forward in full public view during the pre-match stand-off in the Millennium Stadium tunnel and as a result of that display of obduracy, he is now being talked of as a bulldog rather than a poodle.

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A natural leader if ever there was one and therefore an authority on the subject, Farrell believes Robshaw is more confident in his own skin now than at any point since his elevation to the captaincy. “When someone tries to lead a side when they’re not being themselves, people smell a rat,” he said. “Chris is being himself. He has proved that he can continually perform at a very high level and he knows there are other leaders in the side who have his back.”

Robshaw has been at the heart of so much of the national team’s best rugby in recent seasons, and a strong, authoritative contribution will further shorten the odds on him being the first Englishman on to the field when the World Cup campaign begins against Fiji in mid-September. Who else is there anyway? Tom Wood, often talked up as an obvious alternative, will have his work cut out just to reclaim a place on the blind-side flank if James Haskell continues in his present vein, while the hooker Dylan Hartley remains just a little too combustible for Lancaster’s liking.

But as Farrell will no doubt inform his charges ahead of kick-off – probably at very high volume – England are one 80-minute mess-up away from seeing an awful lot of assumptions go up in smoke. If Italy are a major Test-playing country, it is in name only: they have not kicked on as the international community originally hoped when they welcomed them into the championship at the turn of the century; their domestic game is going backwards at a rate of knots; their 14th place in the world rankings is by no means an insult to truth.

Lancaster pointed out this week that in both of their most recent defeats, at the hands of South Africa and Ireland, the Azzurri were in the game for long periods. But he knows, as well as everyone else, that a comfortable victory on Saturday is the minimum requirement. Anything less will cast the team into “one step up, two back” territory, which is never a cosy place to be.

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