By Andrew Baldock
ENGLAND hooker Steve Thompson has predicted an 80-minute battle against Italy today when the world champions target their first RBS 6 Nations Championship away win in two years.
After strolling to a 47-13 win against reigning Six Nations champions Wales at Twickenham last Saturday, England have put themselves in pole position to launch a major challenge on this season’s title.
The challenge now, though, is to build from that performance and end a run of defeats on the road that has seen England come unstuck against France, Wales and Ireland since 2004.
Judging by their resilient display against Ireland in Dublin last Saturday, Italy are made of sterner stuff under their French coach Pierre Berbizier, and their improvement has not been lost on Thompson.
"They are big men up front," he insisted, as England put the finishing touches to their preparations for the game at their luxurious hotel overlooking central Rome.
"Sometimes, they might get themselves in the wrong place, but I think their philosophy is, even if in the wrong place, they are still going to hit you.
"They will smash in, and that is the way they are. It doesn’t matter what the score might be or what time it is in the game, they are going to carry on going at you.
"I believe Italy are much more organised now - they are an 80-minute team - and we won’t find the gaps and holes that we have done in previous years."
England head coach Andy Robinson has made just one enforced change for the Italian Job, calling up Tom Voyce instead of his injured Wasps colleague Josh Lewsey at full-back, while Robinson can again call upon a star-studded replacements’ bench featuring World Cup winners like Lawrence Dallaglio, Matt Dawson and Julian White.
"We have got big expectations of ourselves," said 27-year-old Thompson.
"But we know Italy are going to be better this week than they were last Saturday, given they are playing at home and with the disappointment on their shoulders of losing."
England’s form on the road has not proved up to scratch during the past two seasons of Six Nations under-achievement.
But the Italy clash begins a run of three successive away fixtures, with Thompson and company also tackling Scotland at Murrayfield before facing what was billed pre-Six Nations as a potential title decider against France in Paris.
"If we are aggressive and keep hold of the ball, then I believe we will go through to win, but if we make errors, struggle at set-pieces and give too many penalties away then it is going to be very difficult to win the game."
And the importance of England’s finishing on top today has been underlined by skipper Martin Corry, who takes charge for his seventh Test, but his first away from Twickenham.
"We have got a lot of confidence out of the way we performed against Wales last weekend, but we put pressure on ourselves to keep improving," he said.
"Italy are a quality side on the back of a defeat. They will have walked away from last Saturday thinking they should have won the game, and the great thing about rugby is you just can’t wait until next week to put things right.
"Before, it used to be about stopping Italy’s pack. Now, they are developing a strong back line, and last weekend’s result showed it is going to be a really tight Six Nations."