Preview: England v Italy

Date published: February 13 2015

Fresh from surprising many in Cardiff, but not themselves, England will look to keep their foot on the gas against Italy this Saturday.

Stuart Lancaster has the luxury of being able to select an unchanged starting XV and bench, buoyed by the performance of so many of England’s young players and returning veterans against Wales. The list of those in the infirmary doesn’t feel as vital as it did a week ago.

Two of those fresh players, Jonathan Joseph and George Kruis, start at Twickenham for the first time representing their country, while Nick Easter and Danny Cipriani, should they be called from the bench, will end exiles of four and six years respectively away from England’s home turf.

Joseph and Kruis, along with George Ford and Anthony Watson, all excelled in Wales despite their inexperience at Test level and young ages – a contrast with the excellence of Dan Cole and James Haskell on their return to duty. Not only were the young guns assured, but they dazzled under the open roof.

Without coincidence, three of that aforementioned quartet hail from Premiership high-flyers Bath, and the chemistry between Ford and Joseph in England’s midfield now seems like the solution to a long-standing problem. One game only, of course, but some signs of hope, or at least a viable alternative to Manu Tuilagi.

Such has the been the backslapping and furore over England’s victory that it’s been forgotten they went into last Friday’s clash under a bit of pressure, with a performance being demanded. What they duly delivered was a showing of real composure after going 10-0 down, because ask any Englishman how they felt after Rhys Webb’s converted try and you’ll have seen them in the midst of a cold sweat.

Last week’s win doesn’t eradicate the 30-3 humbling, but it will help Lancaster and his squad immensely. England in that second half were abrasive and unrelenting. Chris Robshaw's 26 tackles defined his side's work ethic.

They more than deserved victory, as Wales imploded and after the elaborate (although pretty impressive) fireworks display and tunnel fiasco, ended up looking absurd.

England’s chances of success in the Six Nations looked slim originally, faced with trips to Cardiff and Dublin, but now there is a real possibility of lifting the new Six Nations trophy come the end of March.

Lancaster and attack coach Mike Catt will be hoping that once England’s pack begin to tire Italy out, something that the Springboks and Ireland have taken plenty of time to do in the Azzurri’s last two matches, the Ford-Luther Burrell-Joseph combination will be able to fire and help England rack up what could be some much-needed points by the end of the competition.

Any discussion regarding Italy now seems to end in familiar, clichéd territory. Their forwards will always compete, so says the tale as old as time, with Martin Castrogiovanni being no stranger to his opposite man Joe Marler from their battles in the Premiership. But there still isn’t enough behind the scrum to threaten the other nations consistently.

The losses of Alessandro Zanni and Michele Campagnaro are both tough to take. Zanni so often goes unheralded in the shadow of Sergio Parisse, but his skill-set is sublime and Italy will miss his work-rate. Campagnaro meanwhile burst onto the scene in last year’s Six Nations and appeared to be the rough diamond in midfield that Jacques Brunel has been so desperate for.

Italy will always threaten sides with power rather pace. Shifting the Wasps back Andrea Masi into inside centre will give the visitors reliable distribution and a handy running threat, while Luke McLean has always seemed better suited to roaming into space from full-back.

The onus though is on Kelly Haimona to fire Italy’s backline into life. Parisse and co. upfront can test England’s defensive line, but too often with Italy there isn’t enough skill and guile out wide to exploit any opportunities.

Haimona currently has the nod over Tommaso Allan, although the youngster looked sharp off the bench against Ireland. The pressure for the shirt will hopefully see Haimona fire Italy into life. It’s a big ask. 

Ones to Watch:

For England: Speaking this week about ‘putting fear’ into defences, England need to get the ball into Luther Burrell’s hands more often. The 110kg midfielder could be a devastating weapon both through his own runs and the space he can make for others. Defensively he was sound in Cardiff, but a strong showing at Twickenham would tame any temptation by the management to recall Brad Barritt.

For Italy: The last time Italy came to Twickenham, Mike Brown got to know about Giovanbattista Venditti pretty quickly when he brushed him off in a surge down the touchline. He also scored his first Test try against England a year earlier. Fast forward to 2015 and the winger has been recalled thanks to Italy’s backline shuffle. Still only 24, Venditti will have to go looking for the ball but can cause some damage.

Head-to-Head: The number eights. Billy Vunipola had arguably his best game for England last week, racking up the carries, metres and tackles but also playing the full 80. England’s coaches enthused about the effectiveness of their back row and with just cause. What they now want from Vunipola is consistency.

There’s no greater landmark for that latter quality than Sergio Parisse – the timeless Italian figurehead who against Ireland made a couple of out-of-character mistakes. It’s no secret that Italy rely on him and that will be no different this weekend – because a single carry or offload from Parisse can give them a chance. One of him however isn’t enough.

Previous results:
2014: England won 52-11 in Rome
2013: England won 18-11 at Twickenham
2012: England won 19-15 in Rome
2011: England won 59-13 at Twickenham
2010: England won 17-12 in Rome
2009: England won 36-11 at Twickenham
2008: England won 23-19 in Rome
2007: England won 20-7 at Twickenham
2006: England won 31-16 in Rome
2005: England won 39-7 at Twickenham
2004: England won 50-9 in Rome
2003: England won 40-5 at Twickenham
2002: England won 40-9 in Rome
2001: England won 80-23 at Twickenham
2000: England won 59-12 in Rome

Prediction: England’s big win in Rome last year was uncharacteristically heavy, as they chased down Ireland’s points difference for the Six Nations title and Italy seemed to throw in the towel. While they will want to make strides at Twickenham with their attacking game, England first have to break Italy down. A win seems likely, but the margin is up for debate. England by 15.

The teams:

For England: 15 Mike Brown, 14 Anthony Watson, 13 Jonathan Joseph, 12 Luther Burrell, 11 Jonny May, 10 George Ford, 9 Ben Youngs, 8 Billy Vunipola, 7 Chris Robshaw (c), 6 James Haskell, 5 George Kruis, 4 Dave Attwood, 3 Dan Cole, 2 Dylan Hartley, 1 Joe Marler.
Replacements: 16 Tom Youngs, 17 Mako Vunipola, 18 Kieran Brookes, 19 Nick Easter, 20 Tom Croft, 21 Richard Wigglesworth, 22 Danny Cipriani, 23 Billy Twelvetrees.

For Italy: 15 Luke McLean, 14 Leonardo Sarto, 13 Luca Morisi, 12 Andrea Masi, 11 Giovambattista Venditti, 10 Kelly Haimona, 9 Edoardo Gori, 8 Sergio Parisse, 7 Francesco Minto, 6 Mauro Bergamasco, 5 Marco Bortolami, 4 George Fabio Biagi, 3 Martin Castrogiovanni 2 Leonardo Ghiraldini, 1 Alberto De Marchi.
Replacements: 16 Andrea Manici, 17 Matias Aguero, 18 Dario Chistolini, 19 Joshua Furno, 20 Samuela Vunisa, 21 Guglielmo Palazzani, 22 Tommaso Allan, 23 Giulio Bisegni.

Date: Saturday, February 14
Kickoff: 14:30 GMT
Venue: Twickenham
Referee: Johnny Lacey (Ireland)
Assistant Referees: Pascal Gauzère (France), Mike Fraser (New Zealand)
TMO: George Ayoub (Australia)

by Ben Coles