Riki Flutey, the France-based centre at the heart of England's latest bid to add some much-needed pizzazz to their back-line performance, has restored himself to full fitness and is in pole position to make a first international appearance of the season against Italy in Rome on Sunday. Flutey missed last weekend's victory over Wales at Twickenham after suffering a dead leg in training, but he is now a hot favourite to breathe a little life into the former world champions' running game, which has long been reduced to a limp.
Martin Johnson, the manager, still has Toby Flood in support of Flutey. Flood started the game last weekend but is expected to revert to the bench, where he will cover both outside-half and inside centre positions. Two midfielders were released back to their respective clubs yesterday: the uncapped Bath player Shontayne Hape and the Leicester back Dan Hipkiss, who made a brief appearance against the Welsh. They were accompanied on the road out of the team's Surrey headquarters by a batch of usual suspects, including the hooker Lee Mears, the lock Courtney Lawes, the No 8s Jordan Crane and Dan Ward-Smith, the scrum-half Ben Youngs, and a pair of wings in Matt Banahan and Chris Ashton.
However, Johnson retained Matt Mullan, the loose-head prop from Worcester, and Chris Robshaw, the blind-side flanker from Harlequins, in a party of 24. Both are considered outsiders to make the final match-day cut of 22, but they can anticipate a nice trip to the Eternal City, which is better than a slap in the face with a wet fish.
Two senior players certain to start at Stadio Flaminio, the Sale wing Mark Cueto and the Leicester flanker Lewis Moody, were united in their expression of relief that England should finally have found a way to win a tight game against dangerous opponents. "Beating Wales was massively encouraging for us," Cueto said. "Maybe there was a feeling of disappointment that we let them back in after establishing that 20-3 lead and had we gone on to lose from there it would have been tough to take. It wasn't that we thought we might fold, but coming out on the wrong side of these matches does have an effect on a team's mentality. When the Welsh were dominating possession and setting up camp on our line, it was a test for us. We would have liked to have won more comfortably, but in a roundabout way the experience will do us good."
Moody, enjoying something of a purple patch, was in complete agreement with his colleague's assessment. "Saturday's game was a real examination of our character," he remarked. "To be honest, I thought we'd put a nail in it at 20-3, but they came back at us extremely well. What struck me was the complete trust we had in each other. There was no panic."
According to the Lions back-rower, Steve Borthwick was at the heart of this resistance. Presented in some quarters as an England captain in waiting, Moody said of the England captain in situ: "It wasn't just that he led the side on the pitch. He led us the whole week, all through the training and preparation. The way Steve is as a bloke... well, I suppose he's quite robotic in the way he covers every aspect and makes sure he knows everything about everything. He deserves all the praise he's getting at the moment."
If Italy set themselves up for England the way they started against Ireland in Dublin last weekend, the Bergamasco brothers – Mauro the flanker and Mirco the wing – will loom large in the respective orbits of Moody and Cueto. "I've played against them a few times now," the Sale man said. "They personify the ethos of the Italian team by working hard, hitting hard and putting themselves in the faces of the opposition."
For his part, Moody expects the whole of the Azzurri to crawl all over England. "The Italian game is all about physicality," he said, "and when they play in Rome they have an ability to pick it up by 50 per cent, just like the Scots when they play in Edinburgh. They're big, strong men who know how to make nuisances of themselves. Long gone are the days when you could expect to put 50 or 60 points on them. They know their rugby now."
If one thing concerns Moody, it is the sickness bug hanging around the England camp – something that cost Hape a possible first cap at the weekend and prevented Borthwick from training yesterday. "I have the immune system of a ladybird," said the flanker, gingerly. Cueto, meanwhile, was more concerned about his recent dearth of tries at international level.
"Most parts of my game – my defence, my work-rate, my kicking and catching – are quite good at the moment," he said. "The only things missing are the tries. There again, there haven't been too many chances coming my way. If the opportunities were there every week and I wasn't taking them, I'd be worried." Did this mean England were still too pedestrian and risk-averse in attack, especially when compared with a free-running side like the Welsh? "I think some of it is down to our rustiness," he replied, "but we could be better at recognising the opportunities on offer. When we watch the video of a game, we see there were chances. Maybe we should be a little bit braver and push that last pass out, rather than try to be completely secure."
Johnson's playmakers: How the rivals stack up
Test debut Pacific Islanders, 8 November 2008
Win percentage 44
Points scored 20
Test debut Argentina, 11 November 2006
Win percentage 48.14
Points scored 62