England host Italy in Six Nations opener
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England will look for redemption after their disastrous Autumn tests as they host Italy in the opening game of the Six Nations tournament at Twickenham. Italy are yet to secure their first win against the Red Rose.
AFP - England manager Martin Johnson knows better than anyone that talk of his team being a side "in transition" won't wash with the nation's rugby fans during this season's Six Nations.
And that will certainly be the case when Italy arrive at Twickenham for the teams' tournament opener on Saturday.
England have greater playing resources than most of their rivals yet they haven't won the Six Nations since then captain Johnson led them to the title in 2003 - the same year he lifted the World Cup trophy.
For this weekend's match, tickets, unusually, had to go on public sale after clubs failed to take up their full allocation.
Officials blamed the credit crunch but the fans' patience was tested to the limit by a trio of Twickenham losses to Australia (28-14), world champions South Africa (42-6) and New Zealand (32-6) in November, when former lock Johnson took charge of England for the first time.
England have a vast backroom staff yet the man heading up the operation in Johnson had no coaching or rugby management experience before taking over one of the biggest jobs in world rugby union.
The Pacific Islanders apart, Johnson had the toughest possible start to his managerial career after taking on the world's three best teams. But that won't be the case in the Six Nations.
England were off the pace at the breakdown in November and struggled to provide quick ball for their backs where gifted but inconsistent outside-half Danny Cipriani made a number of high profile errors, in part because of a lack of options outside him.
The Red Rose pack also found themselves being overpowered at the scrum, a traditional Italian strength, with prop Martin Castrogiovanni leading the way.
Johnson has dropped Cipriani from his matchday 22 and, with Toby Flood injured, now recalled his former Leicester colleague Andy Goode after more than two years of Test exile.
Goode has a reputation as a steady No 10 with a good kicking game but he insisted this week he has become a more rounded player since joining French club Brive at the start of this season.
England lost first-choice scrum-half Danny Care to an ankle injury earlier this week but that could yet work in their favour as his Leicester replacement Harry Ellis was Goode's half-back partner at Welford Road.
The return of 2003 World Cup winning centre Mike Tindall and wing Mark Cueto adds experience to the back division while, up front, injuries have led Johnson to hand a debut to in-form London Irish flanker Steffon Armitage.
His inclusion alongside thay of elder brother and full-back Delon, one of the few success stories of the November series, sees a pair of siblings in the same England team for the first time since Rory and Tony Underwood in 1995.
Doubts still persist as to whether Steve Borthwick is one of the two best locks in England.
But Johnson has kept him as captain even though the second row was criticised for his inability to get the team to work with referees in November - or at least communicate successfully their instructions to the team.
"The autumn was a tough experience. There were some bitter disappointments and I took the losses personally," said Borthwick.
Italy have yet to beat England but pushed them close last year before going down 23-19.
However, their lack of depth has been exposed by coach Nick Mallett's decision to play flanker Mauro Bergamasco at scrum-half for the first time because of injuries to Pablo Cannavosio, Simon Piccone and Pietro Travaglie. Yet it might just work.
Bergamasco is a seasoned player and his new role could inspire his team-mates to greater heights.
Former South Africa coach Mallett said: "In training we saw that Mauro has the same level of passing and more experience than the other players and also psychologically he's someone who isn't afraid of this challenge."
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