It takes a special talent for transformation to change from a 60-minute side into a 40-minute side in the space of eight days. At this rate, Engand will be a zero-minute side well before the end of the Six Nations Championship. In the city of the Caesars yesterday afternoon, the team who made it all the way to the final of last year's World Cup were embarrassingly close to being thrown to the lions by opponents who spent the half-time interval wondering whether they themselves might be eaten alive.
As it turned out, Italy lost by four points, rather than the 40 that had seemed likely, and are now so close to claiming the ultimate scalp in European rugby, they can almost smell the glory awaiting them. They may be even closer than they think. "A week ago, we might have lost that game," admitted Brian Ashton, the England coach. "It has been well documented that we folded against Wales at Twickenham. While I accept that we allowed the Italians to suck us into the kind of contest we didn't want to be in, and that we couldn't find a way out of, we didn't fold. At no point was I saying to myself: 'Jesus Christ, we're going to throw this one away as well.'"
He is a man of some faith, clearly. To those eyes less educated than Ashton's, the closing act of this peculiar game had "Jesus Christ" plastered all over it – not least when the Azzurri, back in the land of the living having been left for dead in the opening quarter, forced an attacking line-out five metres from the England line. It was a heaven-sent opportunity, but Steve Borthwick, captain for the day in the absence of the stricken Phil Vickery, brought a magnificent performance to the most fitting of climaxes by pinching the ball under extreme pressure.
Only a few minutes previously, the coach must have seen his entire sporting career flash before his eyes. Having committed the grand heresy of substituting Jonny Wilkinson, the patron saint of goal-kickers, in order to give the 20-year-old Wasps playmaker Danny Cipriani his first taste of international rugby in the pivot position, Ashton saw the newcomer's attempted chip charged down by Simon Picone, who galloped away for an injury-time score at the posts. Had the Azzurri gone on to win, as they easily might, that change of personnel would have taken some living down.
As it was, Borthwick saved the red-rose hierarchy all manner of grief. "I thought his line-out performance was outstanding," Ashton said, admiringly. And the captaincy, which passed to the Bath lock when Vickery, already struggling with a calf injury, fell ill on Saturday? "I knew the battle would be an intensely physical one, waged up front," he explained. "I felt we should pick a captain from one of the front-five positions if at all possible, and as Steve had been leading Bath extremely well for some seasons, he was a clear first choice."
Wilkinson was the other captaincy candidate, but after his game-management failures against Wales, he had more than enough on his plate. Not for the first time, he responded to his critics in two-fingered fashion by creating a try for Paul Sackey inside three minutes. It was a gem of a try, too: a chip and gather by the outside-half, followed by the sweetest of concealed flicks from the back of his hand as Pietro Travagli clattered him with a tackle.
David Bortolussi, a far more accurate kicker than he had let on during the World Cup, reduced the deficit to a point with two penalties, one conceded by the otherwise excellent Matt Stevens, the other by a rather befuddled Lesley Vainikolo, who was entirely successful in saving his excellence for another day. But there was no keeping Wilkinson out of the action. When Jamie Noon charged down the Italian full-back, he was on hand to free Toby Flood on a looping run to the right corner. His conversion from the touch-line marked his 1,000th point in the English cause.
There would be another half-dozen points from the famous left boot before the break, which arrived just as the vaunted Italian forwards were wondering whether they would ever free themselves from the red-rose stranglehold. Andreas Lo Cicero could not handle Stevens at the set-piece – the Italian can talk a good game, as his surname would suggest, but it was the Bath tight-head prop who played one – and for all his high-class work in the loose, Sergio Parisse found it difficult to shake off James Haskell, who hounded him to distraction.
Yet England failed to make that 20-6 advantage work for them. Indeed, they scored only three more points. The Italians returned to the field refreshed and revitalised; the front-row changes implemented by the coaching team transformed their performance at the set-piece; while away from the forwards, Bortolussi grew ever more influential. He kicked penalties on 44 and 57 minutes, and performed his side another service, albeit by accident, by putting the hard-tackling Noon off the field for a dozen minutes or so.
Suddenly, Italy were asking questions – none of them unanswerable for opponents completely confident in their systems, but awkward enough for a team who had just gift-wrapped the Welsh a first win at Twickenham in 20 years. Noon, back on the field after receiving stitches to a head wound, made one of the tackles of his life to prevent Kaine Robertson scoring in the right corner, while Borthwick was called on to stage yet another raid on the Azzurri line-out.
It was nerve-jangling stuff, to say the least, and Ashton must now be wondering whether his England are subject to the law of diminishing returns. Sixty minutes of decent rugby, followed by 40? It seems they will have to score a hell of a lot of points in the first 20 minutes at Stade de France on Saturday week if they are to leave Paris with a result.
Italy: D Bortolussi (Montpellier); K Robertson (Viadana), G Canale (Clermont Auvergne), Mirco Bergamasco (Stade Français), E Galon (Overmach Parma); A Masi (Biarritz), P Travagli (Overmach Parma); A Lo Cicero (Racing Metro), L Ghiraldini (Calvisano), M Castrogiovanni (Leicester), S Dellape (Biarritz), C Del Fava (Ulster), J Sole (Viadana), Mauro Bergamasco (Stade Français), S Parisse (Stade Français, capt).
Replacements: S Perugini (Toulouse) for Lo Cicero, 53; S Picone (Treviso) for Travagli, 57; C Nieto (Gloucester) for Castrogiovanni. 61; A Sgarbi (Treviso) for Canale, 65; C Festuccia (Racing Metro) for Ghiraldini, 65; A Marcato (Treviso) for Masi, 77; A Zanni (Calvisano) for Dellape, 77.
England: I Balshaw (Gloucester); P Sackey (Wasps), J Noon (Newcastle), T Flood (Newcastle), L Vainikolo (Gloucester); J Wilkinson (Newcastle), A Gomarsall (Harlequins); T Payne (Wasps), M Regan (Bristol), M Stevens (Bath), S Shaw (Wasps), S Borthwick (Bath, capt), J Haskell (Wasps), M Lipman (Bath), N Easter (Harlequins).
Replacements: M Tait (Newcastle) for Noon, 52-64; L Mears (Bath) for Regan, 57; R Wigglesworth (Sale) for Gomarsall, 61; L Narraway (Gloucester) for Easter, 68; D Cipriani (Wasps) for Wilkinson, 70; B Kay (Leicester) for Shaw, 82.
Referee: A Rolland (Ireland)