When in Rome... take all the luck you can get
Fortune favoured brave England on rugby's return to Italy's grand stage
Sunday 12 February 2012
No Roman spring, this, on a day when Italy deserted the sunny climes of the Stadio Flaminio, a kilometre or two up the road, for the wintry Stadio Olimpico. No change of fortune either, as the chance to defeat England for the first time slipped away in a snowstorm.
This was a new venue for every player on the pitch but England produced every canine element of the old dogged attitude which has served them well down the years.
"To show the resolve we did, from 15-6 down, to come back and be successful in a place like this, Italy with all the experience they have – credit to the boys," said Charlie Hodgson, England's fly-half.
For the second week running, Hodgson scored England's only try from a charge-down: "It's about trying my best to get to the kicker [Andrea Masi this weekend, Dan Parks in Edinburgh a week earlier] and put as much pressure on him as I can," he said. "I don't know about practising to do it, you have to go for it and hope for the best."
If that makes England sound lucky, there is no denying that Stuart Lancaster's reign as interim coach has been blessed with good fortune so far. But there is more to it than that. Teams who work hard make their own luck and certainly there was nothing lucky about Owen Farrell's five-from-five kicking record: "I felt good about it, going out there today," the 20-year-old said of a stadium where the staff could only clear half the pitch, and the lines, after an afternoon blizzard.
Farrell also had to kick with the Mitre ball used by Italy, rather than the more familiar Gilbert: "It was OK at the start, pretty still," he said. "The wind picked up a bit in the second half and it started snowing, but it wasn't too bad. We just dug in and got the win in the end."
Lancaster said: "We recognise we still have a long way to go but the most pleasing thing is that there was no sense of panic. We talked at half-time about playing a bit off first receiver rather than just off nine, about having the courage to play. We played with a bit more width which was difficult in the conditions but it was the right way to go."
As the Six Nations' Championship enters its first break, England's fresh-faced players can reflect on their appearances at two great sporting venues, Murrayfield and Rome's Stadio Olimpico, and feel pleased – more pleased than the only other England side to have played here, back in 1986, when a strong B team struggled to draw 15-15 with the full Italy side.
Since then, Italian rugby has made significant progress: 26 years ago, the Italian federation persuaded some 30,000 supporters into the stadium, largely by handing out free tickets. But the Viale dei Gladiatori, home to the Stadio Olimpico, is a path less travelled by Italy's rugby men; on only four occasions prior to yesterday had an international rugby match been staged at a ground where AS Roma and SS Lazio are the usual tenants.
So great was Italy's love affair with the round ball rather than the oval one that the 1986 match programme devoted a page to explaining rugby's basic laws to the uninitiated.
Some 20,000 attended the very first game there, in 1954, when Italy lost to a France team fresh from its first share in what was then the Five Nations' Championship. Since 1986, Italy have played only twice at the Stadio Olimpico, losing to the world champions, South Africa, in 1995, and to Wales a year later.
But they have come up in the world and their starting XV yesterday possessed 450 caps more experience than England's. There would have been 75,000 to watch them, too, had not the bad weather cut a swathe in the attendance. That would not have been a record for Italian rugby, given that over 80,000 went to San Siro in Milan to watch New Zealand in 2009, but it would have been more than twice the number that the Stadio Flaminio could accommodate.
Italy will remain at the Stadio Olimpico while refurbishment takes place at their usual ground to increase capacity to 42,000, though since work may not be completed until 2014, it is possible that Rome's biggest ground will be called into action for the 2013 Six Nations too.
Italy will hope that their second game there in the championship, against Scotland on 17 March and potentially – yet again – for the wooden spoon, will bring them the victory they crave.
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