England under pressure to deliver
February 6, 2009
England boss Martin Johnson will be praying for a return to form for his side against the Azzurri © Getty Images
This year's Six Nations will swing into action with England playing hosts to Italy at Twickenham and despite some initial concerns a packed house will welcome the start of the unrivalled rugby showpiece.
Martin Johnson's side find themselves in the unfamiliar position of unfancied outsider coming into the Championship following a bruising autumn campaign that saw his new-look team taught harsh lessons by Australia, South Africa and New Zealand. As a result the pressure is on to reverse a slump and silence critics with a strong challenge for the northern hemisphere crown.
Given the choice as to their first opponents there is little doubt that Johnson and co would have opted for the Italians but that is not assume victory is there for the taking - far from it. England scraped home by just four points in Rome last year and that performance will have given the visitors heart ahead of their latest trip to England's HQ and in some quarters they have even been tipped for their first-ever victory over their illustrious rivals.
Injuries and lack of form mean the England starting XV shows six changes to that which was beaten by the All Blacks in November when equally destructive bouts of inaccuracy and indiscipline cost the hosts dear. As a result the Johnson revolution appears to have given way to evolution. The most notable of the changes is the recall of fly-half Andy Goode from the international wilderness. The Brive No.10 has been rewarded for a strong run of form in the French Top14 where he is the league's top scorer and he benefits with injury ruling out Toby Flood and Danny Cipriani demoted to the Saxons to prove himself once more.
The selection of former Leicester fly-half Goode, last capped against South Africa in 2006, has been viewed as the 'safe' option which may be true if by that critics mean prolific, experienced and most importantly, in-form. He may not provide the electric potential of London Irish's Shane Geraghty, who will provide cover from the bench, but Goode is the ideal man to help get England back on course. A strong performance could see him hold onto the No.10 shirt in the face of some stiff competition but don't be surprised if Johnson adopts a two-pronged approach to the fly-half berth akin to that utilised by Wales.
Any nerves Goode may have about a return to the international arena will be eased with the promotion of his former Tigers team-mate Harry Ellis into the starting line-up following an injury to first-choice Danny Care. Ellis is another man with something to prove and England will benefit from his desire to impress and his understanding with his No.10.
England were criticised for many things during a forgettable autumn campaign with one common concern being a lack of leaders and experience. It appears Johnson may have agreed with this following his decision to bolster his side with Mike Tindall originally restored at outside centre before injury ruled him out and winger Mark Cueto back in the side for the first time since the Rugby World Cup final. Tindall was replaced by Jamie Noon who offers Johnson a like-for-like alternative. Elsewhere, London Irish flanker Steffon Armitage, brother of fullback Delon, will make his debut while Andrew Sheridan returns at loose-head prop.
Fly-half is also a position that leaves Italy coach Nick Mallett scratching his head but sadly for him not due to an abundance of talented options. Half-back contenders have long been a concern for Mallett and his predecessors. Things weren't so bad when Diego Dominguez and Alessandro Troncon offered a stable platform from 10 and 9 respectively but even then there was no depth in either position. Those problems have been magnified with the lack of a proven quality at fly-half amongst today's generation. Mallett will once again hand Andrea Marcato the No.10 shirt and hopefully for the Azzurri's sake he will repay that faith by taking a further step in his development.
Frustrated by injuries and perhaps out of desperation Mallett conjured the first shock of this year's Championship by selecting Mauro Bergamasco at scrum-half. The Italy coach hinted at such a move and followed through with his pledge by handing one of the world's best flankers the responsibility of one of the key decision-making positions in his side. The 29-year-old will not be lacking in terms of physical presence at 6ft 1in and 15 and a half stone, nor for pace having also played on the wing but whether he has the nous to go with it we'll have to wait and see. Mallett admits he had little option but to go with the Stade Francais star and in this case that sounds like the truth rather than clever mind games.
The Azzurri also welcome back Leicester Tigers prop Martin Castrogiovanni to their front row where he will provide some much-needed grunt while Mallett has also included uncapped Venezia lock/backrow Jean-Francois Montauriol.
Let us get not get carried away by England's plight or Italy's chances - the hosts are rightly heavy favourites for this clash and anything but a victory for Johnson's side would be a shock felt around the rugby globe. England will be seething following the mauling they have suffered, desperate to right some wrongs. Expect plenty of drama, less errors but not a polished performance from England who will find Italy a more forgiving opponent lacking a killer touch.
This is, however, the Six Nations and Italy have been the orchestrators of most of the more recent upsets in Championship history - but this one is surely beyond them.
England: Delon Armitage (London Irish), Paul Sackey (London Wasps), Jamie Noon (Newcastle Falcons), Riki Flutey (London Wasps), Mark Cueto (Sale Sharks), Andy Goode (Brive), Danny Care (Harlequins), Andrew Sheridan (Sale Sharks), Lee Mears (Bath Rugby), Phil Vickery (London Wasps), Steve Borthwick (Saracens, captain), Nick Kennedy (London Irish), James Haskell (London Wasps), Steffon Armitage (London Irish), Nick Easter (Harlequins),
Replacements: Dylan Hartley (Northampton Saints), Julian White (Leicester Tigers), Tom Croft (Leicester Tigers), Joe Worsley (London Wasps), Ben Foden (Northampton Saints), Shane Geraghty (London Irish), Mathew Tait (Sale Sharks)
Italy: A Masi (Biarritz), K Robertson (Viadana), G Canale (Clermont-Auvergne), G Garcia (Calvisano), Mirco Bergamasco (Stade Francais); A Marcato (Benetton Treviso), Mauro Bergamasco (Stade Francais); F Ongaro (Saracens), S Perugini (Stade Toulousain), M Castrogiovanni (Leicester), S Dellape (Toulon), M Bortolami (Gloucester), J Sole (Viadana), A Zanni (Calvisano), S Parisse (Stade Francais),
Replacements: C Festuccia (Racing Metro Paris), C Nieto (Gloucester), T Reato (Femi Rovigo), J-F Montauriol (Venezia), G Toniolatti (Capitolina), L McLean (Calvisano), M Pratichetti (Calvisano).
Referee: Mark Lawrence (South Africa)
Touch judges: Joel Jutge (France), Peter Allan (Scotland)
TMO: Nigel Whitehouse (Wales)