Martin Johnson did not get where he is today – in charge of an England team on an upward curve, albeit one that has yet to discover the knack of stringing together more than two half-decent performances – by shouting the odds ahead of the next international, but even he must see this weekend's Six Nations meeting with Italy at Twickenham as a comfortable victory waiting to happen. The Azzurri may have found themselves three minutes and one simple restart catch away from beating Ireland two days ago, but if their captain Sergio Parisse follows the exciting youngster Edoardo Gori out of the side, their spirit could be broken before they reach London.
Parisse, considered by many to be the finest No 8 in world rugby, is suffering from a finger injury: not exactly life-threatening, but serious enough to have the national coach Nick Mallett mulling over the risk-reward balance of playing him on Saturday. Sadly, Gori is definitely out of commission after dislocating his shoulder in the early stages of the Ireland match. Some in Italy talk of the 20-year-old scrum-half as the best player produced there in a generation, and judging by the snap and crackle of his brief Six Nations debut at Stadio Flaminio, his personal contest with Ben Youngs would have been something to savour.
England have never lost to Italy, although there have been three uncomfortably close shaves: one in a World Cup qualifier in Huddersfield, of all places, in 1998, and two in Rome – the first in 2008, the second a year ago. This alone was enough to make Johnson cautious as he turned his mind away from Friday night's encouraging victory over Wales and towards the next challenge. "Italy have shown themselves capable of keeping the ball away from opponents for long periods of time, and as that means you can't score, it's not the worst tactic," he said.
But he knows full well that defeat this weekend would be viewed as a sporting catastrophe, inside the red-rose camp as well as outside. The back five of the England scrum, heavily revamped because of injuries, performed outstandingly in Cardiff – the lock Tom Palmer, 21 caps into his Test career, played one of his best games at the top level, while the flanker Tom Wood produced such riches on his debut that he might legitimately be accused of peaking too soon – and proved that the absences of Courtney Lawes, Tom Croft and Lewis Moody need not be terminal to a team chasing a first title since 2003, when the manager was still a player.
With the Leeds flanker Hendre Fourie and the Wasps centre Riki Flutey under consideration for returns to the starting line-up, Johnson has more selectorial options now than he had this time last week. He will not reveal his hand until Thursday – unusually late, but preferable, in his eyes, to giving Mallett an extended period of plotting time.
"We have to be tough on ourselves," Johnson said. "There is no alternative if you want to improve, and while we did well on Friday to win a big, emotional game in the way we did – a game we might have lost a year ago – you always come away from these matches knowing there were some things you could have done better. We have to turn up this weekend with the same energy and play at the same tempo."
If Johnson was delighted with Wood's display in Cardiff – "He walked out into the bright lights, with the male voice choir, the band and the goat, and did the right things on the ball" – he was equally happy with the response of the hooker Dylan Hartley, the unwilling target of Welsh pre-match mind games. "I thought he did a tremendous job," the manager said. "What happened to him during the build-up, you don't see too often. Yet his concentration was excellent, his line-out throwing was 100 per cent, and we won the game."
Then, Johnson reverted to type. Did he think a Grand Slam was now England's to lose, given the way the remaining fixtures fall? "I wish it was that simple," he replied. "What we don't need to do is get carried away."Reuse content