Date: Sunday, February 4th
Venue: Stadio Olympico, Rome
England head will head into this match with a little bit of uncertainty. On the loosehead side of the scrum, England do have a weakness there with 4 internationals injured or suspended, and I don’t expect Vunipola to play a full 80. This means that Eddie Jones is going to have to bring on Alec Hepburn for his international debut. Italy will definitely try to target the scrum but they don’t have the personnel to do it and with Dan Cole on the other side, it will still be an upward-mountain climb for Italy to assert dominance.
Also, England and Eddie Jones will de desperate to avoid an embarrassment like last year and will be hungry to send Italy to the cleaners. This is reflected in the selected team and barring the unproven reserve loosehead – and despite being absolutely dreadful in club colours recently, Hartley is again retained over Jamie George – it’s a very strong side.
Behind the front-row, Launchbury and Itoje partner each other with Lawes on the blindside flank, with Chris Robshaw returning to fitness just in time to start at 7. Sam Simmonds is given his second international start at number eight, and it will be interesting to see how he goes.
Ben Youngs hasn’t really fired this season whereas Danny Care has been outstanding for the inconsistent Quins, particularly with his kicking accuracy – yet it’s Youngs who gets the start, on the basis of Care’s ‘finishing’ ability in the final quarter. The Ford/Farrell axis has of course has been retained with Ben Te’o returning at outside centre to provide some more directness in the back play.
It’s a solid back 3 of Jonny May, Anthony Watson and Mike Brown who have all played magnificently at times this season for their respective clubs.
After last year’s surprise, it would not be wise to predict an absolutely thrashing and Conor O’Shea’s men will be inspired by Benetton Treviso and Zebre’s dogged performances this season. I think England will beat Italy but it won’t be easy.
The pressure is on all Italy, with pundits and journalists (and me) suggesting that Georgia replace them in the Six Nations. However as I’ve stated above the Italians will be inspired by their spirited domestic showings in the Pro14, especially Benetton, and I’m sure O’Shea will want Italy to make it as hard as possible for England in front of a passionate Italian crowd at the Stadio Olympico.
While there will definitely not be a repeat of last year’s ruck law manipulation, I expect a committed defence. Fitness has been a bit of an Achilles Heel for the Azzurri with all Six Nations sides being able to blow a tired team in the second half, but that may improve under O’Shea’s tenure.
Italy will also miss Exeter’s star centre Michele Campagnaro who scored a memorable try at Twickenham last year but will have the experience of men like Leonardo Ghiraldini and of course their superstar talisman Sergio Parisse.
There is not much else to expect from the Azurri, and I don’t think that there will be the frustration that was last year’s game at Twickenham, so Italy will just look to make their country proud.
All eyes on
In the 1st round of the Six Nations my one to watch will Sam Simmonds again. He hasn’t quite been ripping up defences out wide since his England debut, but has worked on other areas of the game such as his work rate in the tight. Against Italy, I would like to see a bit of both, but also some breakdown work to give us an insight as to where he could fit in the backrow once the likes of Hughes and Vunipola return from injury.
For the Italians, my eye will be on Ian McKinley – his remarkable return to professional rugby has taken another step with his 1st Six Nations start and I’d like his pragmatic style of play that he’s been doing so well for Benetton emulated on the international stage.
I’m leaving that to Hutch in his combined Six Nations predictions article coming shortly.
By Jacob Bassford