So it comes down to this weekend. If France can do England a favour, a most uncomfortable thought for most Frenchmen, then the championship is still on. However unlikely a major Irish loss seems – although who knows, with another significantly reshuffled French line-up – if England can find another gear there is a championship there for the taking.
The Italians fought manfully for 55 minutes against the Irish, and have put together some generally decent performances this campaign. Their inability to consistently perform at the top level for 80 minutes is what has cost them dearest. Whilst no team in world rugby can reach their peak for a game’s entire span, it comes down to how high your peaks and how low your troughs are. Currently, Italy’s crevasses are too deep and their mountains barely hills.
Ireland clearly had a plan to keep the tempo high throughout, reaping the rewards in the last quarter. Italy tried to match them, rather than play their own set-piece to set-piece game, and were only able to stay in it for so long. They’ll need to be at their momentum-fragmenting best if they’re to stop what looks to be a seriously strong England side.
If only. If only they had found two more minutes of gas against France, there would be a grand slam to be hunted. Whilst Lancaster’s men will be unlikely to dwell on such missed opportunities for long, they will know that things could have been different.
Still, they’ve had a fine tournament. In clinically dispatching Scotland, bravely overcoming Ireland and somewhat embarrassing Wales, England have looked the real deal. The pack has been on fire throughout, the defence has been immense, both insatiably physical and brutally unrelenting.
Their young backline has also begun to catch light, and whilst Jonny May and Jack Nowell have run up some blind, isolated alleys more often than their teammates would like, the combinations of Burrell and Twelvetrees, and Farrell and Care, have blossomed gloriously. If Italy aren’t prepared for a fight, this could well be walkover.
All eyes on
For Italy, the returning Sergio Parisse will of course be key, but it will be the slighter figure of Leonardo Sarto to whom the Italians will look to spark some life. An strange looking winger, he doesn’t necessarily look a threat, but manages to appear in the right place, at just the right time, to make something happen.
For England, Ben Morgan has an opportunity (maybe his last) to show that Billy Vunipola has not necessarily carved his name into the number 8 shirt. Morgan has the chance to showcase his talents against one of the game’s all-time greats in Parisse, and he will need to show all the deftness of touch from Saturday as well as no small amount of brute force to get the better of one of the game’s true warriors.
Head-to-head: Mike Brown v Luke McLean
McLean has been, to my mind, Italy’s player of the championship. Every game he has shown the solidity so valued in a fullback, and has built upon that with each 80 minutes he has had on the field. Running, kicking, distributing from second receiver and organising his youthful wingers, McLean will need to show all of this if he is to challenge arguably the world’s current form fullback.
Mike Brown is playing on another level at the moment; tactically, physically, and with no small amount of skill, and yet there will still be naysayers who think his status as number one outrageous. The problem for Brown is that he does not look as dynamic as the Folaus or the Daggs of this world. But in the consistent quality of his contributions, every minor involvement, minuscule detail, he seems to come away in profit. If he can add one or two more tries to his game, the doubters would do well to fall silent.
Italy will need to be excellent just to stick with England, but the Italians have a happy knack of getting under a team’s skin. If they can come out flying, the visitors could run away with it. More likely, though, it will be comfortable but not a cricket score. England to win by 17.
By Patrick Cheshire (@jpcheshire)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images