Italys international rugby union side has been steadily improving over the past few years, but faces a daunting opening match in this years Six Nations tournament when it takes on world cup winners England on 15 February at the Flaminio stadium in Rome.

It will be Englands first competitive game since the team took the Webb Ellis trophy in a dramatic, last-minute victory against Australia in Sydney last November with a drop-kick by golden boy Jonny Wilkinson. Since that triumph, talismanic captain Martin Johnson has announced his retirement from international rugby, but the England squad who won all five of their Six Nations matches last year to take the grand slam remains the red-hot favourite to win the tournament again this year.

Italy coach John Kirwan, the former All Black winger who played

for New Zealand at the world cup in 1987 and 1991 and has

coached the Azzurri since May 2002, is uncowed by the prospect of

taking on England.

I dont think its daunting, I think its fun, he says cheerfully. Weve got nothing to lose. Theyre world champions now and theyve got to go out and prove it every week. We can just go out and have a good time.

Italy joined what was previously the Five Nations competition in 2000, pitting themselves against England and other established rugby nations France, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. They recorded a stunning victory in their debut match against the Scots, but have since struggled to shake off their role as the Six Nations wooden-spooners; their victory over Wales in Rome last year was only their second-ever win in the tournament.

However, the Azzurri pushed Scotland close in their final 2003 match and should take heart from their world cup performance in Australia last autumn. Having beaten Tonga and Canada, the exhausted Italians narrowly lost their battle for a first-ever quarter-final spot when they were beaten by Wales in their fourth game in just 14 days. The more fortunate Welsh enjoyed a weeks break in between each of their matches.

I was disappointed because I felt we had the ability to reach the last eight, says Kirwan, who is regarded as one of the greatest All Blacks of all time. Now we need to consolidate our position as a team. We must continue to win games. Id like to win two matches (in this years Six Nations tournament), one at home and one away.

This goal is made more ambitious by the loss through injury of key players from his squad. Mauro Bergamasco, a 24-year-old flanker who played on the wing in last years competition, is widely considered the best player in the team but is unable to take part this year due to a shoulder injury. Captain and scrumhalf Alessandro Troncon, 30, picked up a knee injury in January which means he will miss at least the first match, and flyhalf Francesco Mazzariol, 28, has been ruled out of the entire tournament with a fractured leg.

Kirwan says he will be looking to less well-known players to make an impact, and has named Andrea De Rossi, a 31-year-old flanker, as captain for the match against England in Troncons absence. The coach also believes Argentina-born flanker Sergio Parisse, 20, and Romania-born centre/fullback Cristian Stoica, 27, will make their mark on the tournament.

In the past the Azzurri have had to contend with the rather lukewarm reception given rugby union by a football-mad public, particularly in Rome where their home matches are played. The Flaminio stadium, which holds 24,000 spectators, has never before been sold out for a Six Nations event, and there has been talk of shifting games to the north, where the sport has a much bigger following and where the Italian team might benefit from more enthusiastic crowds. However, all Six Nations sides play their home matches in their respective capitals, and last summer the Federazione Italiana Rugby (FIR) ruled that Italys games will continue to take place in Rome.

Kirwan doesnt mind where matches are held as long as his team gets the support it needs. I dont care if we play on the moon, he says. What I do want is full crowds, people turning up.

In terms of sparking public interest, Kirwan and the FIR couldnt have hoped for a better draw than the one that pits the Azzurri against newly-crowned world champions England in their opening match, which was almost sold out by mid-January.

Spectators can look forward to seeing England stars including number eight Lawrence Dallaglio, wingers Ben Cohen and Jason Robinson, scrumhalf Kyran Bracken and flanker Neil Back. The world champions have their own injury worries, but scrumhalf Matt Dawson and photogenic flyhalf Wilkinson, whose public profile has soared following his showing at the world cup, are expected to have recovered from calf and shoulder problems respectively in time to take part in the tournament.

Italys home match against England will be followed by a confrontation with France in Paris on 21 February, another home game against Scotland on 6 March which the Azzurri will fancy their chances of winning, and away matches against Ireland and Wales on 20 and 27 March respectively.

For information about tickets to Six Nations matches in Rome,

call the Associazione Italiana Rugbysti on tel. 0862404206

or see www.federugby.it.

Picture: The Azzurri in action during last years Six Nations tournament.