England may have provided a mountain of evidence to the contrary at Twickenham last weekend, but international rugby teams do not make all their own bad luck. Certainly, nobody in the red-rose camp was directly responsible for the latest misfortune to befall Andrew Sheridan, who was recovering in hospital yesterday from an infected cut on his heel that turned into a boil before mutating into an abscess and incapacitating him so badly that he was forced to withdraw from this Sunday's Six Nations match in Rome.
Asked whether he was beginning to suspect that "someone up there" had stopped liking him, the head coach, Brian Ashton, responded with a shard of black humour worthy of Lenny Bruce himself. "It seems there are lot of people who don't like me, but I hope they're not 'up there'," said the 61-year-old coach. "That would be a bit worrying at my time of life." Laughter in the darkness indeed.
Ashton could have been forgiven for kicking the nearest cat on hearing the latest bulletin from an overworked medical department, but he kept his temper in check. "This is a big opportunity for Tim Payne," he remarked, referring to the Wasps loose-head prop charged with filling the Sheridan-sized hole in England's front row. "He's enjoyed an excellent return to form, scrummaging strongly against some very good opposition at Heineken Cup level. Why not look at it positively?"
This would be all fine and dandy were England not travelling weak – or at least weakened – in the area of Italy's greatest strength. When Nick Mallett, the new Azzurri coach, named his side yesterday, the formidable starting props, Andrea Lo Cicero and Martin Castrogiovanni, were bolstered by the return of Carlos Nieto, who will sit alongside Salvatore Perugini on the bench. Only the Argentines can boast a quartet of such potency.
The coach was rather less philosophical when the discussion turned to his side's second-half performance against Wales in the opening round of the championship, when they turned the silk purse of a 19-6 advantage into the sow's ear of a 26-19 defeat. "There are some angry people in this squad, and quite right too," he said, in the prickliest of tones. "They ought to be angry. The rugby we played after the interval wasn't the brightest; in fact, watching the tape of it was like watching a cartoon. It's not something you want to see over and over again, because it doesn't get any better. It hasn't been bedtime viewing every night this week, that's for sure.
"But we've talked about it and dealt with it. We know exactly what we did wrong and we're confident it won't happen again. What I don't want to see the players do is to start taking backward steps in our approach. It would be so easy to slip into a negative mentality, but when you think about it, why abandon everything because of six minutes of madness that cost us 17 points against the Welsh?
"We played our best rugby for a long time in the first half and I don't want people playing by numbers because of what happened in the second. I want, and expect, to see them bringing added value to our game."
To that end, Ashton has decided to stick with almost all the players considered stickable. Iain Balshaw is still at full-back – "If I dropped every full-back who had a kick charged down, there wouldn't be any full-backs left," the coach said, by way of explanation – and Andy Gomarsall is still at scrum-half, despite his failures on the game management front against Wales. Most significantly of all, that Wilkinson chap remains at outside-half. Saint Jonny of Tyneside has taken a fair amount of hammer in the public prints these last few days, but Ashton decreed that "this week, he is the best No 10 to be on the field at the start of the game". And next week? That is a discussion for another time and place.
Wilkinson does not include himself among the coach's "angry" brigade. "I've never been one for anger," he said. "What I feel in respect of last week is a great deal of frustration, mixed with huge disappointment." Had he feared he might get the bullet? "I'm not anxious about selection these days because I'm doing the best I can. I don't want to be here if I'm not the right person. We're playing a game of rugby, not a political game based on how I can best stay in the side. If there's someone better out there, it wouldn't be fair for me to be here and him not to be. Anyway, I haven't got the time to worry about something outside my control."
With a single exception, the changes to the side have been driven by injury. Lesley Vainikolo starts at left wing for the stricken David Strettle; Jamie Noon is at outside centre for Mike Tindall, still undergoing treatment in a London hospital for a bruised kidney; Michael Lipman, the in-form Bath flanker, takes over the specialist breakaway role from his two orthopaedically challenged rivals, Lewis Moody and Tom Rees.
Only Nick Easter has been promoted on form. "Luke Narraway did particularly well on his debut last week," Ashton explained, "but this is a pretty inexperienced back row, and while Nick doesn't have a multitude of caps himself, he's at least played a full season's international rugby."
Lack of experience is definitely an issue. Six years ago, England were in the unprecedentedly privileged position of being able to name four national captains – Martin Johnson, Jason Leonard, Matthew Dawson and Lawrence Dallaglio – among their replacements and, worse still from the Italian perspective, send them onto the field simultaneously midway through the second half. The bench this coming Sunday will not be of the same quality. Not by a very long chalk. It will be an interesting afternoon.
Italy team v England (2.30pm Sunday, Stadio Flaminio, Rome): D Bortolussi (Montpellier); K Robertson (Arix 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 A Del Fava (Ulster), J Sole (Viadana), Mauro Bergamasco (Stade Français), Sergio Parisse (Stade Français, capt). Replacements: C Festuccia (Racing-Metro), S Perugini (Stade Toulousain), C Nieto (Gloucester), A Zanni (Calvisano), S Piccone (Treviso), A Marcato (Treviso), A Sgarbi (Treviso).
England team to face Italy in Rome
15 I Balshaw (Gloucester)
14 P Sackey (Wasps)
13 J Noon (Newcastle)
12 T Flood (Newcastle)
11 L Vainikolo (Gloucester)
10 J Wilkinson (Newcastle)
9 A Gomarsall (Har'quins)
1 T Payne (Wasps)
2 M Regan (Bristol)
3 P Vickery (Wasps, capt)
4 S Shaw (Wasps)
5 S Borthwick (Bath)
6 J Haskell (Wasps)
7 M Lipman (Bath)
8 N Easter (Harlequins)
Replacements: L Mears (Bath), M Stevens (Bath), B Kay (Leicester), L Narraway (Gloucester), R Wigglesworth (Sale), D Cipriani (Wasps), M Tait (Newcastle)Reuse content