England have experienced most things on their Six Nations sojourns in Rome over the last dozen years, but this afternoon's contest with the Azzurri could be groundbreaking in a number of ways.
For one thing, it is likely to be a wet-weather contest – possibly even snow-laden – and the prospect of grappling with a mud-monster as formidable as the front-row kingpin Martin Castrogiovanni is about as far from enticing as it gets. For another, there is a possibility of defeat. Not any old defeat, but a first defeat at Italian hands. Make no mistake, this will be a nerve-shredding occasion.
Assuming, of course, that it goes ahead. Having moved across the River Tiber from Stadio Flaminio to the far bigger and immeasurably grander Stadio Olimpico for their home games in this year's tournament, the Italians have been working overtime to ensure that the pitch covering – plastic sheeting held in place by elderly tubular fittings last used on the Coliseum across town – stayed in place as heavy snow fell on the city's Seven Hills. Last night, officials were completely confident that the match would happen, despite the blizzard. If anyone ever asks what the Romans have done for the Six Nations, the answer will be obvious.
When it came to outpourings of confidence, the England hierarchy seemed equally sure. Certainly, the captain, Chris Robshaw, was perfectly at one with the world, despite the narrow squeak against Scotland at Murrayfield a week ago. "We were lucky to win there," he said, "but you take the luck that comes your way. That was a new team in Edinburgh, but a week is a long time and we already feel like a more experienced side. Yes, we had to make a lot of tackles against the Scots" – a record number, as a matter of fact – "and we'll need to keep the ball for a lot longer in this game. But if it comes to down to sacrifice, we'll make sacrifices."
It could indeed come down to that. Italy are no better than Scotland at scoring tries from a surfeit of possession, but it beggars belief that England will find it in themselves to defend today as resolutely, or for such interminable periods, as they did in the opening round of the championship. In Castrogiovanni and the powerful hooker Leonardo Ghiraldini, the Azzurri have front-rowers well versed in the art of "smashing it up the guts", to use the delectable modern terminology. In Alessandro Zanni and the remarkable Sergio Parisse, they have a couple of loose forwards capable of forcing the visitors on to the back foot in open field. If the Italians stay true to their promise of minimising errors in contact, England could go minutes on end without seeing the ball.
Graham Rowntree, the forwards coach who has much recent experience of narrow-squeak victories in these parts, knows this to be the case. Asked if there was a common denominator at work in tight Italy v England games in Rome, the former prop responded in his customary colourful fashion. "Yes, there's a denominator," he said. "It's that the Italians are bloody hard work up front. Castrogiovanni, Parisse, Ghiraldini... these are among the top operators in European rugby. They have presented us with a huge physical challenge in the past."
England's build-up has not been helped by the weather. "We're great on Astroturf," Rowntree said, referring to the disruptions early in the week. When they arrived on Thursday night, they were informed that their team run at Stadio Olimpico was a non-starter, so after a few minutes on the touchline, they trained at the nearby Unione Capitolina ground. "At least it had some rugby posts," Rowntree said. "We hadn't seen any of those for a while."
There was not, however, any suggestion of the coach getting his excuses in first; indeed, the red-rose staff believe they have done everything in their power to lay the right foundations ahead of kick-off – not least by establishing exactly how the match officials are planning to approach things. Rowntree had a detailed discussion with Jerome Garces, the French referee whose only Six Nations experience to date was as a substitute midway through last season's Calcutta Cup game at Twickenham, and pronounced himself satisfied. "First time I've met Jerome: lovely bloke," he said.
Scrummaging, supposedly a speciality of French officials, would have been a major factor had the conditions been bone dry. In the wet, it will be central to the outcome. So will England's level of self-belief, raised by events at Murrayfield but still low when compared to that of the early 2000s, when Clive Woodward's team were building towards World Cup glory. Hence Rowntree's determination to paint a mood picture with a base shade of faith.
When it was suggested to him that the Italians were seeing this as their best opportunity to record a victory over England, he replied: "The Scots were licking their lips last week, weren't they? I'm hoping to see the same effort from our players, the same courage. It's a big game for us as well, you know."
Charlie Hodgson is fit to start after recovering from the shoulder injury he suffered at Murrayfield, as is his fellow midfielder Brad Barritt, who left Edinburgh with a "dead" leg, and the replacement scrum-half Lee Dickson, who will, if called upon, perform with a fractured bone in his hand.
England will welcome the rest when the tournament reaches the first of its one-week breaks, but they cannot bank on resuming the campaign as one of the remaining unbeaten teams.Reuse content