London (AFP) - If Italy show anything like the same aggression on the field against England at Twickenham as coach Conor O'Shea has in championing their cause, the Six Nations holders could have a tough time on Sunday.
Italy were routed 63-10 last time out as Ireland ran riot in Rome, a result that once again re-opened the thorny debate about Six Nations promotion and relegation.
The fact this is a debate that only gets much of an airing when Italy are struggling has not been lost on O'Shea, a former Ireland fullback.
But it has been given an extra dimension this season by the fact that fast-improving Georgia are now above Italy in the world rankings.
Georgia, however, had the door slammed firmly in their face earlier this week when Six Nations chief executive John Feehan ruled out any hope of promotion and relegation for the foreseeable future.
But O'Shea, previously in charge of London club Harlequins, cited Scotland's form this season, with Saturday's 29-13 win at home to Wales following an opening-day victory over Ireland, as proof of how teams could improve over time within the Six Nations.
"Italy has earned the right to be in the Six Nations because they've had some massive wins against top tier nations as well as bad days," O'Shea said Saturday.
"Look at Scotland beating Wales today. Would you have said five years ago they'd be in the position of beating Ireland and Wales? They've been through a real struggle but are now coming out of the other side.
"We need the game to grow and expand. If we don't expand the game, we'll kill it because there will only be three or four sides left.
"It's brilliant what Georgia are doing, but it baffles me when people want to contract the game.
"It's frustrating to hear people talk about relegation when our job should be to make Italian rugby strong. We need support at a difficult time."
Italy have lost all 22 of their previous Tests against England and will face a home side on a run of 16 successive wins.
The fact England batsman Alastair Cook visited the reigning Grand Slam champions training base this week led to inevitable jokes about "winning by a cricket score" and O'Shea needs no reminding of the pressure Italy are facing.
"We know we're under the microscope. We're learning but we know there will be tough times. We're not as good as we think and not as bad as people think," O'Shea said.
"I know some people will be going to Twickenham expecting England to score 60 or 70 and that might happen, but we want to give a performance that shows what we're about."