Opportunity of a generation
Italy's visit to London is a distraction from the crucial business of next Saturday, writes Eddie Butler
There is no such thing, goes the reminder to selves, as an easy ride in the Six Nations, but this is as comfortable as the trip can be for England. The only unbeaten team are at home against the side slowly deflating after a bright start. England have never lost to Italy anywhere, and at Twickenham run in an average of six tries per outing against them. Add up the tally of points there since 2001 and the scoreboard would read: England 274 Italy 66.
Sergio Parisse, we are again reminded, is back, the noble leader and mighty No 8 of the Azzurri no longer guilty of taking an axe to the fundamental tenet of holding the referee in the highest regard, but merely culpable of forgetting for a fleeting moment in the stress of France's Top 14 his responsibilities as a captain. It is an absolute given that the penitent Parisse will come only to praise George Clancy, today's referee, and save his energy for a
performance even more superhuman than usual, and it goes without saying that the Italian front five, generally shoved around in the last game by Wales, will be honour-bound to stand firm at the scrummage and thereby allow their emperor to hurl himself at the English ranks. Even so, Italy will lose.
Parisse cannot win a game on his own. And Martin Castrogiovanni and Andrea Lo Cicero are slowing down, a propping double act growing less formidable with the onset of that which is even more inevitable: age. And Italy still do not have a half-back pairing that can keep old men happy – that is, by keeping their beards turned to the opposition goalline. Going forward, you can play till you are 50; make a veteran turn and he feels the aches of his years.
Edoardo Gori at scrumhalf tries to take the strain off his 10, Luciano Orquera, but has tended to lose the ball in contact. Orquera tantalisingly promised against France, at the ripe old age of 31, to become the true successor to Diego Dominguez. But he without whom no points were ever scored is still proving difficult to replace, and having glittered against France, Orquera slumped against Scotland. Today both Gori and Orquera may kick more than they run, but neither can bang it as high or as hard as it will be thumped back by England. In all aspects of tactics and strategy, England are superior.
Their real test will come when Dan Cole and Joe Marler (or Mako Vunipola, depending on how many the loosehead prop scatters today) come up against Adam Jones and Paul James (or Gethin Jenkins, depending on how his calf mends). And when the England half-backs come up against their Welsh oppos in Cardiff. And that's the trouble, everything points to the game after this.
Every utterance over the past few days, it seems, has been another reminder to selves: do not think about Wales; do not think about the Grand Slam; do not think beyond Italy. But if England play well they will win handsomely against Italy and Grand Slams are what make the juices flow and if you can't think of the beautiful days of rugby, what's the point of anything anyway? All that torture and pain in training, what's all that about if it's not to be able do a lap of honour somewhere on the grand scale? This is the chance of a generation, the first title – never mind a Slam – since 2003. What's the harm in letting a thought wander to the showdown on Saturday?
Because, I suppose, what is the one and only easy ride in the Six Nations can still dump even the best jockey on his rear. The answer to the question about the pain of training is that it conditions you for an hour of acute discomfort, three quarters of grinding down an Italian side that will give nothing away lightly, that will do everything to stop England playing at the pace of their choice: fast and then faster.
England have taken the risk of changing their scrumhalf, making it a twin alteration at half-back, Owen Farrell's injury already having given Toby Flood (pictured, left) the chance to start.
Danny Care is hardly a risk, but it may take time for him to adjust to the opening tempo, to sort out his understanding with Tom Wood at No 8 and serve his partner accurately in match conditions.
England always have the final quarter to fall back on, their banker closing chapter, when the elevation of athleticism and stamina over massive power brings its reward. It may be a bit scrappy for a long time, but England are on a mission that cannot be derailed by Italy. Not an easy ride, but a tricky pothole to be diligently avoided before all thoughts can turn to where they want to be already: Cardiff on Saturday.
England v Italy,
RTE 2/BBC 1, 3.0
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