Unpolished, but silver looks safe

Hardly a holiday in Rome as the hosts test England's claim to be simply the best
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The Independent Online

That well-known Anglo-phile David Campese was none too impressed, claiming that if the opposition had been of the southern-hemisphere variety then England would have"got belted".

Given the current state of South African rugby in particular, I would doubt that, but none the less the fact remains that this was not the most complete performance of the current campaign. The Italians, with Andrea de Rossi and Mauro Bergamasco in the van, drove splendidly, and with a bit more experience could have led at half-time.

Indeed, the first 40 minutes in particular raised one or two question marks. Technically, England's delivery of the ball across the three-quarter line was very poor. Even though the alignment was generally sound, the runners kept being checked by the pass. This meant that the wide threat which was so prevalent against Wales never materialised until after half-time.

On a more cerebral level, England lost their composure; a mixture of unforced errors, Italians diving over the ball and a referee determined to impose his will led to a series of incidents which culminated in Garath Archer's temporary dismissal. If Diego Dominguez had not immediately missed a sitter, things could have turned out very differently.

The side as a whole looked to be lacking the unity of purpose which has been the hallmark of their play this year. Put simply, they looked tense and a bit distracted, when so far in this campaign they have been looking relaxed and focused.

Once the initial ball-carriers gathered some momentum after half-time they did establish a degree of control, although a disproportionately high percentage of chances came from the interminable "tap and go" penalties so beloved of the skipper.

These are undoubtedly effective, but for too long they were nearly all England had to offer. Against better sides they will get fewer penalties, and cannier teams will find ways of moving the ball away from the clutches of the No 9. Still, while it's working, why worry?

The form of Austin Healey continues to astound - three tries in eight minutes is some return, and Ben Cohen is still scoring for fun. However,overall Campo was right; it wasn't too impressive.

How much to make of this dip in form is difficult to say. Psychologically it was a tough game - new venue, moderate opposition and a build-up in which the media (particularly BBC Television) made the team out to be supermen. All the talk was of 70-point victories, total rugby and a brave new world in which Phil Greening was king.

Such circumstances are less than ideal when preparing to play any collision sport, let alone something as parochial and passionate as the SixNations. In order to perform you have to have an intensity and concentration about you which is easier to conjure up at the Stade de France as opposed to the Stadio Flaminio. Particularly when you are trying to play the type of game that England aspire to.

With the laws as they stand you have to be direct in your initial attack, present the ball well, clear out the opposition ruthlessly and then be precise in your passing, with a combination of forwards and backs giving depth and width to your offence. If you are at all off the pace mentally then it can all fall apart, and at times yesterday England looked thoroughly frustrated.

Some more traditional observers will say they should have addressed this by playing a tighter game in the early stages, but that is to miss the point. England, or anyone else for that matter, can put pace on the game from the first minute, but it requires total concentration and focus, otherwise it is all too easy for even limited opposition teams to knock you out of your stride. At times yesterday, for understandable reasons, it didn't look as if the team were quite as totally engaged in their task as they have been in other matches.

Such subconscious wanderings are unlikely to occurat Murrayfield in a fortnight's time - the ghost of 1990 looms too large in the collectivepsyche of English rugby for that. The small matter ofsilverware (only Leonardand Catt of this side have ever won a Grand Slam) should also concentrate the mindwonderfully.

This is a team who know how they are trying to play, and a temporary blip in Rome isunlikely to lead to them being thwarted now.

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