Unlike some of their Six Nations neighbours, England had never found Italy a particularly hard pistacchio to crack - until yesterday. The Red Rose brigade kept their sweet chariot on track but had to operate on full horsepower to leave the Azzurri in their slipstream.
Italy had won only three out of 30 Six Nations matches - defeating Scotland twice and Wales here - and England were 100-1 on to win. They finally got home by four goals and a penalty to a goal, a penalty and two drop goals but they had to play to their limit to quell what threatened to be a startling uprising. The Azzurri went down with all guns blazing. Seldom has a team produced so many tackles in a rearguard action of almost heroic proportions.
England had averaged 50 points a game from their previous three visits to the Eternal City and this was by far their sternest Test here, as Andy Robinson, their coach, acknowledged. "Full credit to the Italians," he said. "They were unlucky last week against Ireland and played well again against us. They're developing quickly and I look forward to them taking a couple of scalps. They're very close to it."
Under their new coach Pierre Berbizier, Italy may not find Europe an eternal struggle but they are still waiting to cross the Rubicon. England march out of Rome with their banner intact although it can hardly be said that the Chariot moved as sweetly as a nut. Martin Corry, who now leads his team to tackle Scotland, saw it differently.
"This is a big deal for us," the England captain said. "I told the players that the real test for us would come against the likes of Italy on the road because most of what we've achieved so far has been built around Twickenham. We showed we can perform in tough circumstances and that was a real dogged performance." It had to be.
The home supporters had been given early encouragement to fill the night air with chants of "Italia, Italia" as a riposte to the refrain of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot". Italy not only repelled England's initial attacks but should have taken the lead.
They won a penalty from a relatively easy position but Ramiro Pez slightly hurried the kick and the ball rebounded off the right-hand upright.
England's response was to spend 10 minutes encamped on the Azzurri line, producing a fascinating contest of the machismo variety. The power pack went for the rolling maul, not once but half a dozen times and on each occasion they were repelled by a blue wall. It was like a resistible force against an immovable object. When the English forwards finally managed to crash over the line, the referee Kelvin Deaker needed X-ray vision to have seen if the ball had been touched down. The New Zealander had no option but to call for the assistance of the video referee, who was none the wiser.
It brought a huge roar from around the stadium, as if the Romans had witnessed the lifting of a siege which, in a way, they had. Their relief was shortlived. When Harry Ellis finally moved the ball away from 16 wrestling forwards, Danny Grewcock's line-out win went from Charlie Hodgson to Mike Tindall and the centre, cutting an inside line, wrongfooted the defence and finished by stepping outside Cristian Stoica. It was the sort of individual try that England supporters had despaired of seeing from the Gloucester centre. Hodgson's conversion gave England a 7-0 lead but it had taken 28 minutes to break the Italian defence.
They had not, however, broken their resistance. England were being forced to fight for everything; every ball, every yard of ground. This was Italy's prelude to five minutes of fame. On the stroke of half-time Pez produced a peach of a drop goal from about 40 yards to add to a penalty. At half-time, with the score 7-6, Italy took their refreshment, plotting of great things.
Their dream was kept alive when they hit the front within a minute of the restart, Pez kicking a second drop goal. Trailing 9-7, England had to get their act together if they were to avoid the biggest upset in the history of the Six Nations. This they did. Hodgson regained the lead with a penalty on 50 minutes and then added a try with a smart break after a burst from Joe Worsley .
As both sides introduced fresh legs, there was an ironic cheer for the introduction of one Lawrence Bruno Nero Dallaglio to the country of his father. England were putting phases together and their best try arrived when Ben Cohen, winning his 50th cap, sliced through the midfield and delivered a pass to Mark Cueto on the right wing and nobody was going to stop him. "When we get quick ball we show how dangerous we can be," Robinson said.
England had built a 24-9 lead but they were never allowed the excesses to which they had become accustomed. Indeed, the Italians produced a try of their own, and a gem it was too, Gonzalo Canale combining brilliantly with Mirco Bergamasco down the right flank for the latter to shrug off what remained of the defence. Italy, beaten 26-16 by Ireland last week, were behind 24-16 when, in injury time, James Simpson-Daniel, on for Tindall, took advantage of spilt ball inside the Italy 22 and sprinted away to score England's fourth try. Joy for Simpson-Daniel, a particularly cruel blow for Italy.