England's decision not to fast-track the Leeds flanker Hendre Fourie into their starting line-up for tomorrow's Six Nations contest with Italy spawned an intriguing conspiracy theory, based on the notion that a brilliant performance from the South African-born forward at Twickenham might complicate the selection process when Lewis Moody, the injured captain, returns to action – possibly in time for the eagerly awaited meeting with France in a little over a fortnight. The pack would undoubtedly be better balanced with a specialist breakaway in the open-side position, but Fourie must make do with a seat on the bench.
Elsewhere, there was no decision to be made – least of all in the front row, even though the Italians will concentrate their efforts in this area. England's scrummagers did a job on their Welsh opponents in Cardiff seven days ago, and if they can hang together against the formidable Azzurri trio of Salvatore Perugini, Leonardo Ghiraldini and Martin Castrogiovanni, a second successive championship victory will be very much on the cards. "I expect it to be a big part of the game and it will have its challenges," said Dylan Hartley, the England hooker, yesterday. "Eighteen inches of hair and a beard in my face? Lovely."
The majestically hirsute Castrogiovanni will bring all this and more to the set-piece exchanges, but Hartley had to deal with worse as recently as last week and came up smelling of red roses. Indeed, his performance under pressure at the Millennium Stadium was a small masterpiece of sporting concentration that may one day be seen as a defining moment in his international career. Singled out for unusually personal criticism by the Wales coach, Warren Gatland, in the build-up to the game, the Northampton captain responded by keeping his temper in check, hitting his line-out jumpers with unerring accuracy and, in the process, establishing himself beyond dispute as the number one No 2 in the country.
"I knew there were people out there who wanted me to crumble," he admitted. "It was a new situation for me, and I think now that I proved something to myself by performing the way I did. Did I run into Warren afterwards? He came up to me while I was eating my meal, shook my hand and said 'well done'. It takes a man to do that."
Happily for the hooker, his place at the heart of the public discourse has been taken by a second Northampton player: the wing Chris Ashton, who put two tries past the Welsh in Cardiff. The first of them was accompanied by a triumphant swallow-dive that earned him a mild ticking-off from Martin Johnson, and while the manager played down the incident yesterday – "It's been grossly exaggerated," he insisted – Ashton was suitably contrite. "I've taken a lot of stick," the cross-coder from Wigan confessed. "I'm so grateful I didn't drop the ball, because that would have put me in a whole world of pain. If I have a chance to score this week, I'll just put the ball down over the line. Definitely."
Ashton's highly individual approach to his work – he spends less time in his allocated position than any international wing in living memory – is the key ingredient in England's rejuvenated attacking game, and he is a short-priced bet to continue his scoring spree against the Italians. Interestingly, he traces his wide-roaming style back to his rugby league days at Central Park. "I played full-back in league, and when I did something wrong, our coach, Ian Millward, threw me on the wing as punishment because he knew I hated it there," he recalled. "When I moved to Northampton and they told me they saw me as a wing, it was a case of: 'What? That's the last thing I want.' But they gave me a free rein and I've enjoyed every minute of it."
Italy have made four changes, two of them enforced, to the side that came up marginally short against Ireland in Rome six days ago. Pablo Canavosio replaces the brilliant young scrum-half Edoardo Gori, who dislocated a shoulder in the early stages of that game, while Valerio Bernabo fills the back-row gap left by Josh Sole, out of commission with an ankle injury. Nick Mallett, the coach, has also moved his pieces around at outside-half and second row. Luciano Orquera has been given the No 10 shirt ahead of the Brisbane-born Kristopher Burton, while Carlo Del Fava starts in the engine room instead of Santiago Dellape.
Crucially, the Azzurri have held on to the services of their captain and world-class No 8 Sergio Parisse for another week. Parisse is suffering from a busted finger and barely made it through the Ireland match, but he has declared himself available for the trip to Twickenham and was duly named in the starting line-up yesterday.
While the Italians generally win plenty of ball against England, they rarely threaten to win on the scoreboard. "We will need all our heart and will, but we must also learn to vary our game," said Castrogiovanni, who, along with Parisse, will be expected to lead the Azzurri effort. "We must not take the field thinking we can defend for 80 minutes: if we do, we will crash after 60. England have shown that they want to play with the ball in all areas of the field. We have to become better at using our own backs. Against Ireland, we focused too much on our forward play and became predictable."Reuse content