To listen to the England management, you might begin to believe that the Red Rose legion are walking into the Colosseum today armed with nothing more than a fig leaf rather than playing little Italy at Stadio Flaminio. From Sir Clive Woodward down, the fashionable thinking is not only that the Six Nations is better than anything the southern hemisphere has to offer but that the Italians will provide the most fearsome challenge imaginable.
"There's no doubt whatsoever that this will be a ferocious game,'' Woodward said. "And physically the toughest in the championship. Playing Italy at Twickenham is one thing, in Rome it is completely different. If we don't get this right we could lose. The first match is always the most difficult. When I spoke to John Kirwan he was confident of giving England a big, big game.''
It is better to make noises that are regarded as politically correct than to march into Rome as a force of occupation, but let's keep things in perspective. England are 4-6 to win the Grand Slam, Italy are 2,000-1.
Kirwan, who as an All Black wing opened the 1987 World Cup by skittling Italians as if they were the target in a ten-pin bowling alley, has raised Italy's profile and ambition since succeeding his fellow New Zealander Brad Johnstone as coach in 2002. Johnstone got off to a sensational start when Italy defeated Scotland on their Six Nations debut in 2000. Last season it was Wales's turn to sleep with the fishes, but two victories in four years is the sum of Italy's achievement.
"I think we'll give England one hell of a game,'' Kirwan said, but he fell short of expecting anything more than that. "We know that if England play well against us we'll be up against it. We need to improve 30 per cent in every area if we are to close the gap on England and France, but the other teams are in our sights. Italy are growing and I detect a change of attitude in the players that reflects our level of competitiveness.'' Italy, notwithstanding the fact they were given a dreadful itinerary, were the only Six Nations country not to make the quarter-finals of the World Cup.
Continuity and consistency have been Woodward bywords. "This is no championship in which to experiment,'' he reiterated last week. "I choose on merit and form. It's what people expect and the tournament deserves.'' That said, he has made eight changes, three positional, from the side who started the World Cup final against Australia, and two of the biggest influences, Martin Johnson and Jonny Wilkinson, will be watching the match on television.
In the absence of the retired Johnno, Lawrence Dallaglio regains the captaincy, and with Jonny recovering from an operation, Paul Grayson forms a new half-back partnership with Andy Gomarsall. It is the back line that has undergone the most drastic surgery, and for once Woodward was not spoilt for choice.
Mike Tindall, Mike Catt, Stuart Abbott and James Simpson-Daniel are all injured, prompting the switch of Jason Robinson to outside-centre from full-back. Had Simpson-Daniel been fit he would have played on the wing, with Josh Lewsey at full-back.
Last March, when England played Italy at Twickenham, Wilkinson was handed the captaincy and Lewsey scored two tries from full-back. England, 33-0 up after 22 minutes, won 40-5 and had to make 171 tackles to Italy's 109. It was the Azzurri's finest hour, but they could not turn possession into points.
Their greatest scorer, Diego Dominguez, has retired from Test rugby and Italy have to find some play-makers to complement a decent pack. Kicking possession away will not be the smart option this afternoon, not against try-scorers such as Robinson, Lewsey, Iain Balshaw, Ben Cohen and Will Greenwood.
''Here's to you Mr Robinson,'' Red Rose supporters were singing in Australia, "England loves you more than you will know.'' Billy Whizz is the most dangerous runner in the game. Without him and Wilkinson, it is unlikely England would have had a sniff of the World Cup.
"I'm looking forward to seeing Robinson at centre,'' Woodward said. "I wouldn't like to mark him. He's one player who can take it all in his stride.'' Robinson outside Greenwood could be the beginning of a beautiful relationship, although neither would like reminding that the Italian midfield wrecked the New Zealand centre Tana Umaga in their opening pool game in the World Cup.
"Since Jason made the move from rugby league to union he's developed all aspects of his game,'' observed Phil Larder, England's defence specialist. "He's played for Sale at centre, and with his speed of foot and speed of thought I'll be surprised if anybody goes outside him.'' Nobody will be surprised if Robinson goes outside, inside or loops the loop.
Larder's association with Leicester has not prevented a culling of the Tigers contingent, with Ben Kay the sole survivor and Neil Back the most celebrated casualty. "Backie was a bit shocked,'' Woodward said of the No 7, who has 66 caps, "but that's the business we're in. It's a brutal thing but I have to pick the best side. I think he'll play for England again.''
It didn't sound so reassuring from Larder, who gave the impression he was parting with an old sheepdog when he said: "Backie's done an outstanding job and has had a great career.'' Past tense for Backie.
If the flanker was gutted that is as nothing to Steve Borthwick, who was over the moon at winning a place on the bench until he discovered he had been cited for kneeing Dallagio in the head in the Bath-Wasps match last week. Under the rules of the Premiership Borthwick could have carried on playing for his club, but in the Six Nations a player is prevented from turning out while disciplinary proceedings are pending. If Borthwick had been sent off he would have had his case heard within days. As it is, he misses a weekend in the Eternal City for a hearing in Coventry on Tuesday. Guilty or not, that is punishment enough.Reuse content