When Mathew Tait goes through his pre-match routine at the Stadio Flaminio this afternoon – pacing the touchlines and picturing himself doing the right thing in tight spots and open spaces – he will draw inspiration from a basketball legend. Michael Jordan made a commercial around the time the teenaged Tait first got into the England team, and it can still be seen on YouTube. The title? Failure.
"You have to try and fail at things to ultimately be successful," said Tait, now 24 and making his second successive start for England after five years spent mostly as a frustrated replacement. "It takes a massive amount of courage. Michael Jordan describes how he missed this many shots and that many shots, and ultimately that's what made him what he was: because he was willing to take risks and try things."
OK, so Jordan was busy flogging sportswear in the ad, but if Tait finds resonance in the words of the hoop-shooting genius, they could be worth a listen. "Twenty-six times I've been trusted to take the game-winning shot... and missed," Jordan intones. "I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed." The reason this cropped up as Tait made ready to face Italy in Rome was his part in England's match-winning try against Wales last weekend. There was his quick, weaving run to wrong-foot Shane Williams, followed by a behind-the-back pass to James Haskell to apply the finish.
"As a group and as individuals, we've got to be willing to make mistakes," Tait said. "If I'd thought about it I might not have thrown the pass like that. But I don't think it was a risk, I think it was the right thing to do. It happens automatically. You are reliant on instinct."
And that's the nub of it. There is preparation and there is action. Tait has read books on visualisation and it was a favourite subject of Steve Black, the conditioning coach at his former club, Newcastle. Before kick-off Tait, now with Sale, will imagine positive outcomes, but negativity has a habit of interrupting.
"I hadn't predicted Ryan Jones clattering into me," Tait chuckled, recalling the clear-out collision with his head which left him staggering like a drunk and "feeling like I was in a goldfish bowl for 30 or 40 seconds".
Tait recovered soon enough but he knows the goldfish-bowl feeling very well. In this YouTube and iPlayer era, his career can be glibly replayed – over and over and over again, to quote Jordan – in singular incidents. That pair of Gavin Henson tackles in 2005; the World Cup final break in 2007 ("dragged down by bloomin' Victor Matfield," Tait grumbled); the blown opportunity from a set move against Ireland last March.
But rugby is played in real life and real time, when the theory gets parked and a mindset takes over. England are now trusting in their outside centre's mindset that risk has its reward.
The Kiwi convert Riki Flutey is back from injury to start at inside centre alongside Jonny Wilkinson, and England have five forwards on the bench. Italy recall former captain Marco Bortolami to joust with Steve Borthwick in the line-out and the other change to the Azzurri XV beaten 29-11 by Ireland in Dublin is the replacement of Kaine Robertson on the wing with the bulkier Andrea Masi. "We've got to do the hard yards first to allow us to play wide," said Tait. "The wings, [full-back] Delon Armitage, Flutes and myself will pass the message to Jonny when we want the ball. As long as we're smart enough to take the chances when they arrive, that's all we can do."
Flutey and Wilkinson have been strumming on their guitars in the team hotel, obliging Tait to cover his ears while he watches DVDs. He gets his "buzz" away from rugby by flying Cessna light aircraft and he is 10 to 15 hours from gaining his private pilot's licence. "You do circuits and manoeuvres and sometimes you just think 'shit, I've got to get this thing down'."
England hope they are on the up and up, but away their record is sketchy. In 2009 they lost in Wales, Ireland and Argentina, albeit by a combined margin of 11 points, and have been beaten on 10 out of their last 13 Six Nations trips. That is a worry with Murrayfield and Paris in the diary next month.
But with victories over Italy in all 15 previous meetings, and Tait thinking positively, there should be no fear of failure at the Flaminio.
Italy L McLean; A Masi, G Canale, G Garcia, Mi Bergamasco; C Gower, T Tebaldi; S Perugini, L Ghiraldini (capt), M Castrogiovanni, Q Geldenhuys, M Bortolami, J Sole, A Zanni, Ma Bergamasco.
Replacements F Ongaro, M Aguero, V Bernabo, P Derbyshire, P Canavosio, R Bocchino, K Robertson.
England D Armitage; M Cueto, M Tait, R Flutey, U Monye; J Wilkinson, D Care; T Payne, D Hartley, D Cole, S Shaw, S Borthwick (capt), J Haskell, N Easter, L Moody.
Replacements S Thompson, D Wilson, M Mullan, L Deacon, S Armitage, P Hodgson, T Flood.Reuse content