Rome conquered as England march onwards

 

Good rugby teams are not built in a day, wherever they happen to be playing, but England are now just 80 minutes away from putting the seal on an achievement which will stand the test of time. Even if the Scots do their utmost to throw a spanner in the works on Sunday week, the high road to Edinburgh is now as straight and true as anything designed by the finest Roman engineers.

This is not to say England were flawless against a gallant Italian side on Saturday, merely that Clive Woodward's men now have a collective sense of purpose apparently impervious to Six Nations obstacles of any size, let alone the sort of pebbles which Scotland's dismal recent form suggests will be lobbed at them at Murrayfield.

For a brief moment, when they trailed 7-6 and were reduced to 14 men with Garath Archer in the sin bin, it was possible to diagnose a slightly wobbly chariot but it is distinctly hard to argue with eight tries, including a hattrick from the effervescent Austin Healey, who for eight minutes early in the second half resembled a Ferrari among a bunch of Fiats.

In the space of six weeks, they have scored 19 tries, one short of their championship record which has stood since 1914, and romped past the previous highest aggregate by any team.

Jonny Wilkinson, with 70 points, has also already eclipsed Jon Webb's old individual championship best.

Italy met their match in the form of Healey and his mob of heavies, marshalled by that most formidable of Anglo-Italians Lawrence Dallaglio.

Robocops? Even Brad Johnstone, the Italian coach who coined the phrase during the World Cup, concedes they now have "bigger batteries" and are capable of doing significantly more damage.

"If they get too confident they could still lose it but if they play with the assurance and discipline they're showing they're going to be very hard to stop."

To those qualities can be added flair and finishing ability, notably when Healey has the ball. On this occasion he occupied just about every back-line position at various stages and his tries were a unholy trinity of quick-witted gems.

Healey's first try came courtesy of a murderously effective midfield angle from Dallaglio and a nicely-timed pass from Matt Perry. The second, though, was all his own work, the deceptive kick-start breaking the defensive line and a deft chip over the fullback completing the job.

He was also in perfect position to capitalise on Wilkinson's cross-field punt and finished off by setting up Ben Cohen for both his tries, the second from a lovely flipped-pass under heavy pressure. The penalty try awarded by the Irish referee Alan Lewis, almost inevitably, was for a neckhigh tackle on the Leicester magician.

It was all-singing, all-dancing stuff by the end, with the captain Matt Dawson also collecting two tries, but to damn Italy with faint, patronising praise for not allowing their heads to drop would be to ignore their massive contribution to a rip-roaring first quarter and, indeed, the whole tournament.

For the first 20 minutes, Lewis resembled a harassed traffic cop in the Piazza del Repubblica, waving his arms vainly with no obvious sign that anyone was taking the slightest notice. Luca Martin wriggled over for a good early try, there were frequent scuffles which led to yellow cards for both Archer and Carlo Checchinato and Italy were looking threatening until Walter Cristofoletto was sent to the sinbin for impeding a quick tap penalty.

England duly scored 17 points in the 10 minutes he was away, including a drop goal by Neil Back best filed under the heading A Funny Thing Happened On the Way To The Forum, and if the watching David Campese had already seen enough to offer a caustic verdict - "If England played like this against any of the southern hemisphere teams they'd be walloped" - the final balance sheet was easily in credit.

"We're a far better team than last year. We're a little more ruthless and our decision making has improved," said Woodward. "If we have to shut up shop we can, if we need to do anything different we can. We can't wait to get up to Scotland."

The coach also took the opportunity to back track sharply on his threat not to tour South Africa in June unless he is offered a new contract before he leaves. "I said the wrong thing, as usual," he acknowledged, confirming he would see out his existing contract which ends in August.

Leaving aside their occasionally baffling public relations, it is England's ability to kick off the bend when they sense their opponents wilting which has become the signature of Woodward's tenure. The way they can now control the tempo of a game, not simply the speed at which they play, reliably dynamites gallant but inferior sides and, whatever way you twist them, the omens do not look auspicious for the Scots.

Unless both sides are struck down by some Presbyterian thunderbolt for daring once again to play on a Sunday, a wooden spoon for the hosts is likely to poke out from under the anticipatory pile of English garlands, hardly a re-run of the Braveheart days of 1990.

"The Scots always show lots of guts but they're going to have to play well above what they've shown so far this season," said Johnstone. He is not wrong. It is not so much Scotland the Brave this morning as Scotland the Terrified.

Scorers: Italy: Tries: Martin, Stoica. Conversion: Dominguez. England: Tries: Penalty try, Dawson 2, Healey 3, Cohen 2. Conversions: Wilkinson 4, King. Penalties: Wilkinson 2. Drop goal: Back.

Italy: Pilat; Stoica, Zisti, Martin, D Dallan; Dominguez, Troncon; Lo Cicero, Moscardi, Paoletti, Checchinato, Gritti, Cristofoletto, Bergamasco, de Rossi. Replacements: Preo for D. Dallan (58), Cuttitta for Paoletti (58), Persico for Bergamasco (77). Not Used: Orlandi, Arancio, Mazzantini, Scanavacca. Sin Bin: Checchinato (15), Cristofoletto (26), Stoica (67).

England: Perry; Healey, Tindall, Catt, Cohen; Wilkinson, Dawson; Leonard, Greening, Garforth, Archer, Shaw, Hill, Back, Dallaglio. Replacements: Balshaw for Tindall (63), King for Wilkinson (74), Gomarsall for Dawson (78), Woodman for Leonard (71), McCarthy for Greening (78), Worsley for Hill (71), Corry for Dallaglio (78). Sin Bin: Archer (19).

Referee: A Lewis (Ireland).