Professionalism has chan- ged rugby union from a game of tradition - the after-match banquet in a female-free environment, the first-minute punch-up at scrum or line-out, the selection of prop forwards purely on the basis of their large pimply faces being indistinguishable from their large pimply backsides - to a game of cliché. Today's players always "focus on the next match" and "concentrate on controlling the controllable". Above all, they make it their solemn business to "take the positives from the negatives". The fact that this is philosophically incoherent does not stop them for a second.
Andy Robinson, the England coach, was thinking along these lines at Stadio Flaminio on Saturday night. His side, heavily backed to win a first Six Nations title in three years after applying a nasty big pin to the Welsh balloon the previous weekend, had struggled to subdue an Italian side who once seemed to have been put on this earth specifically to leak early points to the red rose army and then spend the rest of a match giving them some much-needed preparation for the next proper fixture. This time, England had taken half an hour to open their account, found themselves behind after 51 minutes and were still at risk as late as the 70th.
Yet two of the most castigated players among the world champions' number, the Gloucester centre Mike Tindall and the Wasps flanker Joe Worsley, were the talk of this wonderful town. Tindall had scored a splendid individual try directly from first-phase possession, cutting an intelligent angle off Steve Borthwick's precise line-out delivery, busting Sergio Parisse's attempted tackle and swatting away Paul Griffen like some irritating insect. He had also helped create the most satisfying try of the match for Mark Cueto by flicking an inside pass to Ben Cohen as the powerful Northampton wing hit a damaging diagonal line off another of Borthwick's gift-wrapped presents.
Worsley, meanwhile, had had himself a ball. In rampant mood throughout, he made his decisive move towards the end of the third quarter by blasting Mirco Bergamasco out of his path - when the Azzurri centre finally landed, he was somewhere in the vicinity of the Villa Borghese - and creating the simplest of tries for Charlie Hodgson, who glided down the left wing as free as a bird in spring.
A few minutes later, Worsley was summoned from the field and replaced by his club colleague and guiding light, Lawrence Dallaglio, who just happens to have one eye on the younger man's place in the starting line-up. He did not looked best pleased - Arctic ice fields move more quickly than Worsley did during his enforced retreat - and there was more than a whiff of discontent in the air.
"Not so," he assured his questioners. "I'd taken a bang on the head, there was some blood about and I was muddle-headed. Anyway, the game was won."
Indeed, and the athletic Worsley had played a significant role in the winning of it. Together with Borthwick and the lock's fellow Bathonians, Matt Stevens and Danny Grewcock, he engaged with the Italians in their great area of strength - the forwards, where the likes of Salvatore Perugini, Marco Bortolami and the flanker Mauro Bergamasco were operating at full productivity - and wore them down. Worsley has always been a damaging runner in open field but until this match, his ability to extricate himself from the more congested areas of the international rugby field had not been one of his more obvious talents. Indeed, there were times when he appeared to be in dire need of a compass.
England have tried him every which way - at No 8 and open-side flanker, as well as on the blind side; as an impact player off the bench as well as a member of the run-on team - but it has taken the best part of seven years and 46 caps to raise him to the heights he achieved at the weekend. If, in the early stages of his Test career, the likes of Dallaglio and Richard Hill denied him a clear view of the road ahead, Worsley was his own obstruction during the latter stages of Sir Clive Woodward's tenure as head coach. It is only now, in the less dictatorial environment of the Robinson regime, that the bit-part player is threatening to become whole.
"It's a more relaxed atmosphere," he said after the game. "The players have much more of an input, more of a say in how things should be addressed. It's no secret that I find it easier to be a part of this England set-up." So there was no sense of injustice at being denied a gallop in the last 10 minutes, just as the Italians were tiring and space was being opened up? "Not at all. This is a team game. so you can't see things in a purely individual way. Besides, I was feeling pretty fuzzy."
With Tindall contributing a performance Robinson identified as "his best attacking display in an England shirt", there will be no great agonising when the coaches come to select their side for the Calcutta Cup match in Edinburgh a week on Saturday. Inside-centres of serious international quality are as rare as hen's teeth in English rugby, especially as Olly Barkley of Bath is still hors de combat. Tindall, a "completely honest player" to Robinson's mind, is not ready to announce himself as an Anglo-Saxon Yannick Jauzion just yet, but he is slowly familiarising himself with the dictates of his new position.
"I think it was better," agreed the Yorkshireman, who had played pretty much all his top-level rugby as an outside-centre before being press-ganged into this latest role during the autumn. "I'm enjoying the time I get on the ball, and the try was something to remember. It was the most beautiful feeling in the world, seeing their open-side flanker flying up on Charlie Hodgson and leaving a hole for me. And just for once, I managed a side-step as well. Who'd have thought it?"
This was not an England performance constructed on the grand scale - certainly not on the Grand Slam scale. Despite Robinson's insistence that his side can play two or three styles of rugby, and that his midfield can unlock more secure defences than the Italian one with the right kind of quick ball, there is no denying that the power game is the one closest to their hearts. If, as the Azzurri did at the weekend in paving the way for Ramiro Pez to drop the goals that briefly threatened a rewriting of the form book, an opposing pack stays on terms for long periods of time, that game can be neutered.
There again, the Italian forwards are quite something these days. But for Borthwick's dismantling of their line-out, they might have scored more than the one try finished by Mirco Bergamasco from Gonzalo Canale's dashing break past Jamie Noon and Matt Dawson in midfield. The world champions will not encounter a more forthright pack for the remainder of the season. Rugby types may talk in clichés and England may spend much of their time playing in one, but just at the moment, it is good enough.
Italy: C Stoica (Montpellier); P Canavosio (Calvisano), G Canale (Clermont Auvergne), Mirco Bergamasco (Stade Français), L Nitoglia (Calvisano); R Pez (Perpignan), P Griffen (Calvisano); S Perugini (Calvisano), F Ongaro (Treviso), C Nieto (Viadana), S Dellape (Agen), M Bortolami (Narbonne, capt), J Sole (Viadana), Mauro Bergamasco (Stade Français), S Parisse (Stade Français). Replacements: C Del Fava (Bourgoin) for Dellape, 58; A Persico (Agen) for Sole, 58; S Picone (Treviso) for Canavosio, 62; C Festuccia (Gran Parma) for Ongaro, 68; M Castrogiovanni (Calvisano) for Nieto, 68; A Lo Cicero (L'Aquila) for Perugini, 72.
England: T Voyce (Wasps); M Cueto (Sale), J Noon (Newcastle), M Tindall (Gloucester), B Cohen (Northampton); C Hodgson (Sale), H Ellis (Leicester); A Sheridan (Sale), S Thompson (Northampton), M Stevens (Bath), D Grewcock (Bath), S Borthwick (Bath), J Worsley (Wasps), L Moody (Leicester), M Corry (Leicester, capt). Replacements: M Dawson (Wasps) for Ellis, 56; L Mears (Bath) for Thompson, 64; J White (Leicester) for Sheridan, 64; L Dallaglio (Wasps) for Worsley 69; S Shaw (Wasps) for Grewcock, 75; J Simpson-Daniel (Gloucester), for Tindall, 82.
Referee: K Deaker (New Zealand).
Stadio Flaminio statistics
* TOP CARRIERS
Mike Tindall 9
Ben Cohen 7
Lewis Moody 7
Jamie Noon 6
Cristian Stoica 6
* TOP TACKLERS
Sergio Parisse 14
Mauro Bergamasco 13
Josh Sole 13
Carlos Nieto 11
Mirco Bergamasco 9
* MISSED TACKLES
Josh Sole 3
Gonzalo Canale 2
Santiago Dellape 2
Paul Griffen 2
Mirco Bergamasco 2
* MOST OFFLOADS
Mark Cueto 2
Danny Grewcock 2
Ramiro Pez 2
Joe Worsley 2
Gonzalo Canale 1
* MOST ERRORS
Danny Grewcock 3
Ramiro Pez 3
Carlo Festuccia 2
Mike Tindall 2
Marco Bortolami 1Reuse content