With victory at Murrayfield secured, Eddie Jones’ men turn their sights south to Rome, the Azurri, and Sergio Parisse’s awful drop-goal attempts.
The win over Scotland was certainly not pretty. It was gritty, ugly and dogged, something that the pundits, ex-captains and players alike believed ‘was needed’, to kick start the new regime as England delivered under pressure.
The set piece, bolstered by the restoration of Dylan Hartley to the front row, looked increasingly stable as the game went on. However, England’s coaching staff will have come away with mixed feelings about the performance of their back row. Billy Vunipola was certainly highly destructive in the loose, as was James Haskell in the tackle area.
The same cannot be said of Chris Robshaw. The former England Captain, for some reason, has been praised for his ‘excellent work rate’. The truth of the matter is, however, neither Robshaw nor Haskell made a single turnover between them and England were at times hampered by slow possession at the breakdown. Against Wales and Ireland, who between them can boast some of the most accomplished opensides in the northern hemisphere, this will not be good enough.
The backline enjoyed less success in what was a notoriously congested fixture, and whilst Jones can big it up as much as he wants, the George Ford- Owen Farrell axis of England’s U21 side is the product of necessity, not choice. The absence of both Henry Slade and Manu Tuilagi has and will continue to hurt England’s midfield until another solution can be found, though none sadly appears available.
Mike Brown’s kicking was below par and often aimless at times, and England can be grateful that wayward punts went only to Stuart Hogg—a fine attacker in his own right—and not the more devastating combinations that occupy Wales’ and Ireland’s back threes. Alex Goode, the more refined boot, is waiting patiently on the wings with years ofkicking finesse on his side. More positively, Jack Nowell and Anthony Watson were in fine attacking form and both look to enjoy the more varied, elusive style of play that Eddie Jones advocates.
Hartley and his men will travel to the Stadio Flaminio under little pretense as to what is expected of them. They have racked up 99 points over the last two fixtures whilst conceding just 28. England fans wince at the reminder of the converted try that separated them from the 2015 title, and with Wales and Ireland drawing in Dublin, the issue of points difference must be lurking in the back of the players’ minds.
Eddie Jones faces a dilemma about how to deliver a similar result but will be under no illusions that the greater task lies further afield in the tournament. England will look to seal off the breakdown and cement the 10-12 axis, but will only move on from the kick-chase-defend style of play implemented against Scotland (the backs put boot to ball 41 times) when they are sure that they can deliver out wide.
The starting XV makes three changes from the team that beat Scotland. Lock Courtney Lawes, loose-head prop Mako Vunipola and scrum-half Ben Youngs come in for Joe Launchbury, Joe Marler and Danny Care respectively. Saracens Forward Mario Itoje is in line to make his England debut after being named on the bench. The 21-year-old can play in both the second and back rows.
Personally, I would have liked to see Matt Kvesic in the side because I believe his talents at the breakdown will hinder Italy’s ability to generate quick ball. Keiran Brookes is another one to look out for in the future and may well be pushing for a starting place by the end of the tournament, though Cole’s abilities at the breakdown will be hard to replace.
In a sense, the scoreline of this game matters little: England will win big against an ever-spirited Italian side, but one that is hampered by injuries to key players. They will put their runners into space, but only once the forwards have battered, bruised and bludgeoned their way through the Italian pack as they did so against Scotland. Two comprehensive victories on the road for England will stand them in good stead for a home stretch at Twickenham against Ireland and Wales, who will be watching this England side with wariness.
England to win by 25 or more.
England Team to face Italy:
15. Brown 14. Watson 13. Joseph 12. Farrell 11. Nowell 10. Ford 9. Youngs 1. Vunipola 2. Hartley [c] 3. Cole 4. Kruis 5. Lawes 6. Robshaw 7. Haskell 8. B Vunipola
Replacements: George, Marler, Hill, Launchbury, Itoje, Clifford, Care, Goode