No Martin Johnson, no Jonny Wilkinson, no Neil Back - no problem. Unbeaten in the Six Nations' Championship for close to two years, England responded to the many and varied upheavals of the immediate post-World Cup period in emphatic fashion yesterday, putting seven tries and a half-century of points past an Italian side who had promised to give Clive Woodward's men a "hell of a game". If this was hell, paradise must be very similar.
John Kirwan, the Azzurri coach, described England as "the complete team" as he picked over the debris of an unexpectedly heavy 50-9 defeat in front of a Rome audience yet to be convinced that rugby represents a meaningful alternative to football, which rules this city as the Caesars once did and shows far fewer signs of abdicating. "They have four different games in one, and can play any or all of them at any given moment," Kirwan continued. "They are outstanding."
Having lost Johnson, the great Leicester lock forward and even greater captain at international level, Woodward could barely wait to talk up Lawrence Dallaglio, the Wasps No 8, as a worthy successor. "Lawrence has been asked to fill some massive shoes, and he has done a fantastic job all week," the coach said. "He made all the right moves in the build-up to the game - the players were hugely 'up' for this match, and the atmosphere in the dressing-room was no different to that before the World Cup final. In addition, his performance on the field was exceptional. It has been a very satisfactory start for Dallaglio, as well as the team."
Paul Grayson, the Northampton outside-half charged with the challenging task of replacing the injured Wilkinson, scored a rare try as part of his 20-point contribution. His goalkicking, once the foundation stone of his game, was less than reliable, but his organisational and tactical work virtually ensured him a further chance against Scotland in Saturday's Calcutta Cup at Murrayfield. As Kirwan lamented: "With this lot, it's a case of one player out, one in. They have tremendous strength in depth."
Woodward agreed that the attacking work of his wide runners - Iain Balshaw, Josh Lewsey and Jason Robinson - revealed "a spark" that had been absent for much of the World Cup, when England scored only two tries in the knock-out stage. Robinson, starting at outside centre for the first time in an international, claimed three on his own yesterday, reinforcing his reputation as one of the most dangerous backs in the game.
Asked if there was anything Robinson could not do, Woodward joked: "He's the worst goalkicker I've ever seen." Kirwan was equally happy to share a laugh, albeit one of the deadpan variety. Questioned on the best means of stopping England winning a second consecutive Grand Slam, he replied: "You could try using a bazooka."
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