Woodward's quest for perfection drives England

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Clive Woodward rarely wastes much time on facts and figures - "I may be many things, but I'm not a statto," the red rose manager insisted at Twickenham yesterday - but he knows this much: during England's record victory over Wales in Cardiff a fortnight ago, the Six Nations favourites gave away 43 pieces of possession. Those who believe England could forfeit 443 pieces of possession and still beat Italy by a basketball score this afternoon are missing the point. Woodward will not rest until his side delivers something close to the perfect game.

Clive Woodward rarely wastes much time on facts and figures - "I may be many things, but I'm not a statto," the red rose manager insisted at Twickenham yesterday - but he knows this much: during England's record victory over Wales in Cardiff a fortnight ago, the Six Nations favourites gave away 43 pieces of possession. Those who believe England could forfeit 443 pieces of possession and still beat Italy by a basketball score this afternoon are missing the point. Woodward will not rest until his side delivers something close to the perfect game.

"Forty-three turnovers in 80 minutes? That's not a great performance for a side trying to get to new places, as we are," he asserted. "I was happy that we came away from Wales with the win, of course, but, technically speaking, we were way off. Certainly, we were nowhere near as good as we were when we beat the Springboks in Bloemfontein last summer. I don't think you saw much euphoria from me in Cardiff, and if you look at the match video you'll see why: poor ball retention in contact, handling errors, lost line-outs, aimless kicking, penalties given away." So why didn't he drop the lot and have done with it? "We discussed it, but I was over-ruled," replied Woodward with a grin.

He could afford a smile or two. At the Millennium Stadium, a back division crammed with pace and vision played such irresistible rugby in the areas Wales least expected to see them that the match stats were about as relevant as a drought management scheme in the Lake District. In every credit and debit column except the one that really mattered, England were virtually obliterated: the Welsh won more ball, protected it for far longer and forced their opponents to make something in the region of 200 tackles - a phenomenal amount of grunt, even in an era of gridiron-style defensive commitment and organisation. Yet in the final analysis, it made not a jot of difference. The visitors had the game won by the end of the first quarter, and were out of sight by half-time.

It is fair to assume that the men at the cutting edge, from Matt Dawson at scrum-half to Iain Balshaw at full-back, will attempt to colonise the wide open spaces once again this afternoon. England expect a hard, possibly ferocious, street fight in the dark alleyways of scrum, ruck and maul, for the Italian pack is a formidable unit. But as soon as the ball sees daylight, the Azzurri will surely disappear into the past tense.

Jonny Wilkinson, the form outside-half in Test rugby, has so many distributive options - a world-class back row on his shoulder, Mike Catt and Will Greenwood cutting angles one way, Austin Healey cutting them the other, Ben Cohen thumping up the middle, Balshaw materialising late from deep positions - that it is difficult to see how the Italian back-line might even begin to cope. Brad Johnstone, their coach, has played the one card available to him in the absence of his senior half-backs, Alessandro Troncon and Diego Dominguez. He has constructed a barricade, and selected those best equipped to man it.

The new-look Azzurri back division is a virgin unit, and around 50 per cent of it will be playing out of position; Luca Martin is not obviously a wing of Test quality, Andrea Scanavacca spends precious little time at full-back and, if Giovanni Raineri is a stand-off of international calibre, he has kept it a secret from everyone bar his immediate family. As late as Wednesday, Johnstone was not remotely sure who he might play where and for what reason.

Of the combination that undermined English confidence so badly at Huddersfield in 1998, only Martin and Christian Stoica remain.

Woodward believes the visitors will at least tackle their weight. "Brad has gone for a lot of positional changes, and they seem to be defensive moves," said the manager. "But I don't think we can look at it simply as damage limitation. That would be dangerous. They've strengthened their pack by moving Carlo Checchinato back to No 8, and the pack was strong enough anyway, as Ireland found out in Rome a fortnight back. We're looking to win this game and move on. I want to see if these players can go into a match as clear favourites and take things forward. I think the attitude is right, but you never know for sure until the game begins."

The bookmakers seem to have an inkling, though. As England are 150-1 on to win this one, and currently average more than 50 points in matches against Italy at Twickenham, an Azzurri victory would be the biggest shock to the British system since Boadicea came a cropper. Don't forget your calculator.

Comments