Discipline will prove key to any success for England

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Chris Ashton believes life on the straight and narrow is already paying dividends for England as they prepare to tackle Italy at the Stadio Olimpico.

England opened their RBS Six Nations title defence with a committed and, crucially, a well-disciplined 13-6 victory over Scotland last weekend.

Despite making more tackles than ever before in a Test match – 238 by their own count – England conceded just nine penalties at Murrayfield.

It was a far cry from some of the dark disciplinary days under Martin Johnson, when England were often guilty of haemorrhaging penalties and points.

Last season, Ashton scored four tries as England beat Italy 59-13 at Twickenham – but they also conceded 18 penalties, and it was a problem Johnson never fully solved.

England got on the wrong side of referees at the World Cup and they conceded a torrent of penalties during their failed campaign, which was dogged by controversy.

Ashton admitted it needed an outside influence like the new interim head coach Stuart Lancaster to identify the problem – which he did immediately.

Lancaster believes there is a direct correlation between players’ discipline off the field and their discipline on it and he set about changing the culture of the squad.

That led to Danny Care and Delon Armitage both being suspended from England’s elite squads after finding themselves in trouble with the police.

But it also paved the way for an opening victory at Murrayfield that England will look to build on against the Azzurri this weekend.

“It’s a mind-set in the team now, with people realising the impact it can have on a game if we keep giving away penalties. It is massive for us,” Ashton said.

“At the World Cup it cost us a lot and in the end it is what got us knocked out, basically.

“It is something we have focused on a lot.

“Sometimes when you are involved with the team, you can’t see that (behaviour off the pitch could influence performance on it).

“Sometimes it takes someone like Stu to come in from the outside to make you realise that.”

England made mistakes in defence last week, allowing Scotland to break their line 14 times, but their ability to scramble and defend the try-line was impressive.

It epitomised the message of pride, heart and discipline that Lancaster has been trying to get though to his men – and won England the game.

Lancaster said: “We talked about it again this morning with the players – ‘What does pride in the shirt and professionalism look like? What does commitment look like?’

“These are the types of things that the players talked about. We want the players to take ownership of the on-field discipline and off-field discipline through the leadership group and you can begin to see that happening. If we had been ill-disciplined at the weekend, we probably would have conceded four or five penalties in kickable range, which ultimately would have led to Scotland winning the game.

“We want to see a repeat of that discipline against Italy this weekend. We don’t want to give cheap penalties away by going offside or from early scrum engagements.”

Chris Robshaw will captain an unchanged England team against Italy.

Northampton’s Phil Dowson held off a serious challenge from Ben Morgan to keep his place at No 8, in direct opposition to the dynamic Italy captain Sergio Parisse.

Charlie Hodgson has recovered from a blow to the shoulder to continue at fly-half with Owen Farrell and Brad Barritt again forming an all-Saracens midfield.

Saints scrum-half Lee Dickson has recovered from a hand injury to retain his place on the bench, where England stick with a four-three split between forwards and backs.

“People always expect you to win against Italy but they keep getting better year after year,” added Ashton.

“They will be full of pride playing at home.

“We will go over there confident of winning, but we won’t underestimate them at all.”

England team to play Italy

B Foden (Northampton); C Ashton (Northampton), B Barritt (Saracens), O Farrell (Saracens), D Strettle (Saracens); C Hodgson (Saracens), B Youngs (Leicester); A Corbisiero (London Irish), D Hartley (Northampton Saints), D Cole (Leicester Tigers), M Botha (Saracens), T Palmer (Stade Francais), T Croft (Leicester Tigers), C Robshaw (Harlequins, capt), P Dowson (Northampton). Replacements: R Webber (Wasps), M Stevens (Saracens), G Parling (Leicester), B Morgan (Scarlets), L Dickson (Northampton), J Turner-Hall (Harlequins), M Brown (Harlequins).

n Rotherham Titans’ match at home to Cornish Pirates tomorrow has been called off due to the weather.

However, an inspection will be held at 11.30am to see if the match can go ahead on Sunday at 2pm.