Stuart Lancaster’s England are two games away from their first Grand Slam for 10 years. After just a year in charge, that is an impressive achievement. Along with Rowntree, Farrell Snr. and now Catt, he has built a squad and a culture that has seen them rise from underachievers to the best the Northern Hemisphere has to offer. This weekend, it is the turn of Italy to enter HQ and whilst they have shown fleeting flickers of improvement, it is a game England really should expect to win.
Reasons to back England
Lancaster has managed to make several changes without actually weakening the team. This is a fantastic place to be in for England. The new half-backs, Danny Care and Toby Flood, are both vastly experienced and will be champing at the bit to show what they can do after having had to bide their time on the bench. Care scored a mesmeric try in the Premiership a few weeks back, and Flood is excellent at attacking the gain-line – a good attribute to have going into a game England are expected to dominate in terms of possession and territory. If they play well, it is an area in which Lancaster will have a genuine selection headache for the Wales game.
Mako Vunipola adds his ballast to the front row, and with Marler looking solid if unspectacular so far he has a real chance to become England’s no.1 loose-head (at least until Corbisiero returns). Perhaps the most intriguing call of all comes next to him, with Tom Youngs reinstated for Dylan Hartley. After being given his chance against France it would seem that Hartley has not done enough to convince the management he is the undisputed first choice at hooker. Youngs, who is still raw but has the potential to be better than Hartley, seems to be the man they are backing longer-term. His dynamism is a useful asset for England to have.
The bench is also exciting. With Italian legs tiring in the second half, the trio of Ben Youngs, Freddie Burns and Billy Twelvetrees could have a field day. If the game opens up and England carve out a sizeable lead, expect the latter two especially to get some game time. The Burns-Twelvetrees axis was carving up the Premiership at the beginning of the season, and it is an exciting prospect for England fans to potentially see them in a white shirt this weekend. And a mention must go to Tom Croft. It is a shame not to see Billy Vunipola getting a chance, but Crfot’s return from a devastating injury is great to see for all rugby fans. Bulked up but still brimming with pace and skill, he can be a real weapon from the bench.
Reasons to back Italy
Parisse is back. Beyond that it is tough to see many shoots of encouragement. He is as close to indispensable as a player can be to a team, and brings a spark that is otherwise glaringly lacking. You sense that it may be beyond even him to lift his team to what would be one of the biggest upsets for many a year, though. Coach Jacques Brunel has made seven changes to the side that fell to Wales in Rome, including the recall of the mercurial Luciano Orquera at fly-half. He is almost an Italian Michalak – so good against France, so terrible against Scotland. If he can replicate his form from the France game, he could certainly cause England some problems. That is a giant ‘if’, though.
Elsewhere Andrea Lo Cicero is benched after being taught a lesson by Adam Jones. His replacement, Alberto Di Marchi, will not have it any easier against Dan Cole. Martin Castrogiovanni lends some warrior spirit to the cause, and will provide a stern examination of young Vunipola’s credentials. He will be keen not to take a backwards step at scrum time – particularly with clubmate and rival tight-head Cole lining up across from him. Grizzled campaigner Gonzalo Canale comes into the midfield, probably to shackle the giant-sized threat of Manu Tuilagi. Good luck to him.
For Italian fans, the hope remains that they can rediscover the form they showed against France. If the weather is good, and Orquera decides to play well, they certainly have the potential to score some tries. Orquera’s selection would certainly suggest they will look to play some rugby; Kris Burton, their other option, is not a particularly inspiring attacker, but he can drop a goal. They will know there’s no pressure on them, so at the very least they might be able to contribute to an entertaining game.
This game could potentially tell us a lot about the England team. Last year’s affair in Rome was gritty and, frankly, unmemorable. They will want to first and foremost secure the win, but it would be great to see them score some tries against an Italy team that has looked – the France match aside – decidedly average so far. It should be a very comfortable home win – England by 27.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43