HEAD coach Stuart Lancaster wants all thoughts of a potential grand slam to be put out of his England players’ minds as they look to continue their progress towards a first Six Nations clean sweep in a decade against Italy tomorrow.
Many expect the Azzurri to be lambs to the slaughter at Twickenham with England notching up a routine victory before marching on Cardiff and a grand-slam decider against defending champions Wales.
While Italy have rarely put up a fight in south west London, they have the potential to surprise opponents as they did France at the start of the competition.
With so much at stake, Lancaster is at pains to stress that his players’ focus be solely on the task at hand and extending their unbeaten record against Jacques Brunel’s side.
“I don’t look at the bookie’s odds because they are irrelevant. What is relevant is what mindset you turn up in,” said Lancaster of a game in which England are overwhelming favourites. “I am always looking through the course of any week, asking ‘are we ready, are we too anxious, are we in the right place?’.
“We are in a good place going into the game. Those players who are not involved are still 100 per cent behind the team. That is the making of a good team.”
Although Italy are rank outsiders, Lancaster will not write them off, particularly given the return from suspension of their inspirational captain Sergio Parisse.
“We know the improvement they have made and the quality they have,” said Lancaster.
“Parisse coming back is a huge psychological lift and it adds a huge amount in terms of experience. All things point towards Italy putting in a strong performance and we have to be ready.”
While he wants his players focusing on one game at a time, Lancaster and his coaching staff of Andy Farrell, Graham Rowntree and Mike Catt have bucked the trend of sports coaches the world over by planning for two games at once, rather than just one.
England’s head coach has not gone completely off script as he prepares his team for the penultimate phase of their grand slam quest. But if they are to achieve their goal then Lancaster feels that by focusing on the two remaining games with Italy and Wales as “one project” they will write their names into the history books.
Toby Flood will return to the England side tomorrow inspired by the words of Sir Bradley Wiggins. The Olympic and Tour de France champion addressed the England squad before their QBE autumn international campaign and his words have stuck with Flood, who has always been a keen cycling fan.
“Bradley Wiggins talked about how you have to break everything down,” Flood said. “He knew the Tour de France was there and he had the ability but he had to get the Paris-Nice right and the Dauphine right. That is a really interesting thing for us to deal with.
“This is the Six Nations, it is eight weeks long and you have to get it right day-by-day, week-by-week.”
Match preview: Page 8.