It will be England's first competitive game since they defeatedAustralia in Sydney last November where fly-half Jonny Wilkinson's dramaticdrop goal in the final minute of extra-time secured the Webb Ellis trophy.
Italy have finished no higher than fifth in the tournament theybecame part of in 2000, but rather than fear England, Azzurri coach John Kirwancan't wait to face the defending Six Nations champions.
"For us, Sunday will be a fantastic day, a fun day,"said the 39-year-old New Zealander, an integral member of the All Blacks side thatcaptured the World Cup in 1987. "We will have the advantage of being the underdog. All thepressure will be on England because they are world champions and they have to go outand prove it in every match."
In the past, rugby has received a rather lukewarm reception fromthe football-crazy Italian public, but the prospect of seeing thenewly-crowned world champions sparked a rush for tickets in the capital and thegame is a 24,000 sell-out.
Kirwan, whose Italy team narrowly missed out on a first-everquarter-final place at the World Cup, said playing in front of a full house willgive his players extra motivation.
"It's the first time in the history of Italian rugby that thestadium will be full and we are obliged to give our all," he said. "It's our responsibility as a team to help rugby in Italy.There's been more interest, more media, more television coverage, moreeverything."
Kirwan said he was confident Italy would improve on theirperformance in last year's Six Nations when they claimed one victory against theWelsh, which was enough for them to avoid the wooden spoon for a fourth time.
"We need to consolidate our position as a team and continueto win matches," he said. "This year I'm looking for twovictories, one at home and one away."
Calvisano flanker Andrea De Rossi will captain Italy as regularskipper Alessandro Troncon is still recovering from a knee injury.
Kirwan, scorer of 34 tries in 63 Test matches for New Zealand,said the 31-year-old De Rossi was the natural choice to lead the team outagainst England in the absence of Troncon. "One thing we ask all players is that they raise their gameto another level when they put on the national shirt," he said. "The Italians have a phrase 'Mandare oltre', to play aboveyourself, and De Rossi always does that.
"He is completely different to Troncon in terms ofpersonality. He is quieter and makes less noise out on the pitch, but he has an aura
England go into Sunday's match in Rome with just 10 of thestarting side that defeated Australia. Wilkinson has been ruled out of the whole tournament after havingsurgery on a neck injury, so Northampton fly-half Paul Grayson takes over thekicking duties. Grayson has a proven international record with his tally of 357points in 29 Tests making him England's third-highest scorer of all time behindRob Andrew (396) and Wilkinson (817).
Lawrence Dallaglio takes over as skipper from Martin Johnson, whoannounced his retirement from international rugby last month after leading theteam to victory in Australia.
Dallaglio, whose father was born in Italy, was England captainbefore Johnson, but was forced to resign from the post due to newspaperallegations he took drugs for recreational use, a claim he has always denied.
Flanker Neil Back, capped 66 times, has been axed by England coachClive Woodward due to his poor form for his club Bath.
"Everyonewill lift their game against us. I'm under no illusion about that. I know how I would play against the world champions. I wouldbe at their throats from the start." said the 31-year-old Wasps No.8. "The game gives us the chance to set our standards againafter the World Cup. This is our first match as world champions and every team willbe looking for us,"
"Everyone in the squad realises the rugby world will bewatching England but hopefully we have the experience and ability to handle it,"Dallaglio toldreporters at the squad's southern England training base. And he said the performance of Italian teams in this season'sEuropean competitions proved that John Kirwan's men were no longer content tobe Six Nations makeweights.
"They had a difficult time during the World Cup in that theirschedule gave them a big mountain to climb," he said. "For those of us who have been playing against theirprovincial sides in the European Cup competitions their improvement is there to see.Their results are getting better and better," insisted Dallaglio who lost theEngland captaincy to World Cup-winning skipper Johnson back in 1999 following newspaper allegations of drug use.
"Physically they provide the sternest of tests. In all thegames I have played against Italy we have had to make an enormous amount oftackles. They have the ability to keep hold of the ball and put you underpressure."