Martin Johnson made just the two changes to his England starting line-up yesterday, one of them enforced, the other purely through choice.
It is not yet clear that the former world champions are finally leaving la-la land and heading back into Clive Woodward territory – one interception-fuelled victory over a profligate and indisciplined band of Welshmen is hardly proof that the coaching team have cracked it – but Johnson understands better than most the value of consistent selection. It is the rock on which success is built.
As expected, Riki Flutey will play at inside centre against the Italians in Rome this weekend, with Toby Flood dropping to the bench. Johnson's original pick for the Wales game, the France-based New Zealander has recovered from the "dead" leg he suffered during what was meant to be a non-contact training session a week ago and now has an opportunity to add some shape, style and nuance to a back division sorely lacking all three qualities. There is no guarantee of him freeing things up in midfield – he has played precious little club rugby for Brive since returning from last summer's Lions tour of South Africa and cannot conceivably be fully match-tuned – but the back-room staff see him as the best available option as an attacking catalyst.
The other switch sees Dan Cole of Leicester promoted to the front row at tight-head prop ahead of David Wilson of Bath, who picked up a minor neck injury against Wales and has missed most of this week's training as a consequence. Cole was given a 20-minute taste of Test rugby last Saturday and did his reputation a power of good by stabilising the English set-piece. Scrummaging from the get-go will be significantly more challenging, especially against an Azzurri pack who revel in the dark realities of rugby at close quarters, but John Wells, the England forwards coach, was in no doubt of the newcomer's ability to cope.
"If Dan had been fit during the autumn, selection would have been an interesting debate," said Wells, hinting that Cole's fast-tracking might have been even faster. "If it's true that he is benefiting from a degree of unfamiliarity at the moment, and that the next stage of his development will be about coping with the pressure opponents put on him when they know more about him, we're 100 per cent confident of his potential."
The one area of selectorial uncertainty surrounds the precise make-up of the bench. Johnson and his colleagues expect Wilson to be fit for replacement duty, and believe the locks, Steve Borthwick and Simon Shaw, will recover from their respective sickness bugs in time to attack a weak Italian line-out already shorn of the No 8 Sergio Parisse and the second-row jumper Carlo Antonio Del Fava. However, there is a faint concern about the in-form flanker Lewis Moody, who did not play a full part in training yesterday. This explains the decision to retain the Harlequins loose forward Chris Robshaw in the travelling party.
If the manager remains confident that Moody will feature against an Italian unit boasting marauders as effective as Mauro Bergamasco and Alessandro Zanni – "The reason he didn't train with the starting team was for their safety rather than his," he said of a player renowned for knocking seven bells out of his own colleagues, generally by accident – he is slightly less convinced that his players will approach this game with the right attitude. "When players know they are expected to win comfortably, there can be a subconscious effect that stops them performing at the level they should," he explained. "When you add to that the fact that we're not talking about an 80,000-plus crowd at Twickenham but something much smaller, there is reason to think that in some ways, this will be a more difficult test than the one we faced against Wales.
"The Italians set out to frustrate opponents, and if you allow them, they start dominating possession, winning penalties and chipping away. We'll have to deal with the frustration factor. Our execution from set-piece will have to be completely accurate and we'll have to generate the right amount of intensity at the breakdown. There will be one or two mistakes, as there are in every game, and if we keep it to one or two we'll be OK. Any more, and things could get awkward."
Johnson may not have been bowled over by the Italian performance against Ireland in Dublin last weekend – who was? – but by the same yardstick, he found less to criticise than many of those commentators who accused the Azzurri of offering nothing but negativity. "They merely did what teams are supposed to do when they don't have the ball," said the manager. "I didn't play against them often, but whatever the scoreline suggested, it was never a comfortable afternoon. It was always hard."
Nick Mallett, the Azzurri coach, has called the Roma lock Valerio Bernabo into a 24-man squad after losing Del Fava, who suffered a knee injury during training this week and will not play again for a month. Mallett has also included the Viadana half-back Pablo Canavosio, who replaces Simon Picone. There will be no confirmation of the starting combination until tomorrow.
*To play Italy at Stadio Flaminio, Rome on Sunday (kick off 2.30pm):
D Armitage; M Cueto, M Tait, Riki Flutey, U Monye; J Wilkinson, D Care; T Payne, D Hartley, D Cole, S Shaw, S Borthwick (captain), J Haskell, L Moody, N Easter.
Replacements: To be announced.Reuse content