Passions to run high as England aim to stay unbeaten

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HaviNG rewritten history in Edinburgh, England are now out to prolong a narrative in Rome.

Last week’s win at Murrayfield was England’s first against their age-old rivals on enemy territory for eight long years.

Yet during their relatively short period of fronting up to Italy, England have never lost.

If they harbour any hopes of winning this year’s RBS Six Nations title; if Stuart Lancaster wishes to further press his claims for the full-time coaching job, that tradition must be continued today.

On paper, Italy remain the inferior relation of the northern hemisphere elite.

Yet as they showed against France last year, they can raise their game at home, as they defeated the eventual World Cup finalists in the cramped, close quarters of their Stadio Flaminio stronghold.

Of the many unknowns going into this year’s championship – of which Lancaster’s England remain one despite their encouraging start – how Italy react to a change of venue is a fascinating sub plot.

That they have sold out the 72,000-seater Stadio Olimpico is a great testament to how the game is developing in a football-mad society.

But whether growing out of their considerably smaller home just up the road negates their greateststrength, is open to debate.

How Italy fare, though, is not of concern to Lancaster.

The former Leeds player and coach may be getting comfortable in England’s hotseat following the addition of substance in last week’s victory to the enormous promise he nurtured in his early weeks in charge.

But a first Red Rose defeat against the Azzuri today could see him ushered towards the exit door by the time of the championships’ denoument.

To that end he has placed the utmost faith in the 22 men who delivered victory in Edinburgh.

That win was built on solid, structured defence, which will be called upon once more against a strong, experienced Italian pack.

But England’s attacking play was fractured, and will need to be – should be – more expansive today.

The conditions, however, may dictate otherwise.

For if it was cold in Edinburgh, it is set to be biting in the Eternal City.

Rome was lashed with snow and sleet yesterday as England put together their final preparations away from the Stadio Olimpico, where the pitch remained covered.

The temperature is forecast to drop to minus three at game-time tomorrow – but Italy are notorious for bringing fire and brimstone to a match.

And such a challenge will be met head on by England and their unyielding on-field leader, Chris Robshaw.

Enboldened by his winning start in the armband – which was characterised by him getting his shirt ripped as he confronted an opponent – the Harlequins flanker is ready for the battle.

“We have no illusions about what tomorrow is going to be like,” said Robshaw.

“Coming to Italy, to their capital in the heart of their country, is not easy and they are getting better year on year.

“They will want to go out and prove they are a rugby force.

“Everyone knows about the Italian passion but we have to match that. Everyone who is in this set-up at the moment is so passionate to play for their country.

“We will have to front up. We are under no illusions, we know what passion is coming.

“It is about going toe to toe with each other.

“Italy are always a very physical and passionate side, they will hold the ball through phases and they will have a go through the forwards.

“Last week’s win showed the character of our guys. When you go away from home it is you against a whole nation.”

England’s proudest moment in the Stadio Olimpico to date came in 1997, when a battling goalless draw secured qualification for the national football team to the FIFA World Cup.

Tony Adams captained England that day and Paul Ince finished the game with a blood-stained shirt as Glenn Hoddle’s team toughed out a crucial draw.

While a draw would be a significant setback for Lancaster’s England, Robshaw is willing his side to invoke that spirit of ‘97 to battle out a win if needs be.

England succeeded in doing just that at Murrayfield, where they made a record 238 tackles and prevented Scotland from crossing the try-line.

Robshaw said: “Whenever you go into a game you need to be prepared to sacrifice and go that extra bit, whether that is carrying the ball or making an extra tackle.

“I hope tomorrow, if we get the ball, we can keep hold of it better than we did against Scotland. That was one of the reasons we defended for so long and something we have been working on.”

England go into the game unchanged from Murrayfield, with Halifax-born Charlie Hodgson at fly-half after shaking off a blow to the shoulder and Brad Barritt continuing at outside centre having recovered from a dead leg.

Phil Dowson held off a challenge from Ben Morgan to start again at No 8, in direct opposition to the inspirational Italian captain Sergio Parisse.

York-born Rob Webber will hope to make his debut from the bench.

nick.westby@ypn.co.uk