Planet Rugby

Preview: England v Italy

08th March 2013 12:58

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Three down, two to go - England's latest test in their campaign for a first Grand Slam in a decade is Italy's visit to Twickenham.

Stuart Lancaster's side remain a young team continuing to soak up every experience that is thrown their way, be they good or bad - and based on this year's Six Nations alone, no single experience has been quite like the next.

Starting with the win over Scotland - there were times when England were both clinical but also careless, coming away with four tries but safe in the knowledge that they could have produced more.

England could afford to leave chances out on the field, but no such leniency was allowed in Dublin against Ireland. The unhappiest of hunting grounds in recent Six Nations history, England put to a bed another 10 year dearth of victories under grim conditions in a fixture that was pure brutality.

Which brings us to England's most recent lesson in their ongoing education - after all Stuart Lancaster is a trained teacher. Their opening 40 minutes against France was easily their worst performance of the Six Nations so far, with a collection of missed tackles, small errors and petulance.

Their second half came down to better discipline, a touch of fortune in the build-up to Manu Tuilagi's try and some suicidal substitutions from Philippe Saint-André which handed England an advantage.

To win having played at their worst - a level that was still good enough to produce outstanding performances from Chris Robshaw and Tom Wood - is a testimony to their progression.

Speaking of progression, there might be no greater disappointment come the end of this Six Nations than Italy's failure to kick on. Crushing France on the opening weekend promised so much more.

Luciano Orquera played the game of his life against the French, making people openly question whether he was finally Italy's answer to the 10 shirt, before immediately dispelling those thoughts with a nightmare showing against Scotland.

When Wales visited the Stadio Olimpico two weeks ago, Italy could not reproduce the magic of that first Sunday. Sergio Parisse's absence was sorely felt, but the man does not hold sole control over his side's fortunes.

Recapture that spark from the victory over France, and Italy have hope. Not that the bookies agree, pricing them at 40/1 for a first ever victory over England this weekend.

Lancaster has decided to "freshen up" his side for the visit of the Azzurri, handing deserved opportunities to half-backs Danny Care and Toby Flood - who starts in place of the injured Owen Farrell - along with the powerful Mako Vunipola and Tom Youngs.

The other change sees James Haskell return at blindside flanker ahead of Courtney Lawes, who drops to the bench alongside Tom Croft.

The return of Parisse after winning his appeal undoubtedly makes Italy stronger, their pack will always be able to challenge in the set-piece, but the spark appears to have gone. Given their track record of having never won against England, Sunday would be an ideal time to rediscover it.

Players to watch:

For England: A starter and a substitute will be the main attractions from an English perspective on Sunday. Danny Care has been forced to bide his time behind Ben Youngs throughout England's recent victories, but has maintained an excellent run of club form for Harlequins. His stunning try against Leicester Tigers last month has lodged in the minds of supporters and no doubt selectors too - now he has a chance to lay down a marker. Plenty of Test sides would be delighted to select one of Care or Youngs - England are lucky to have both of them. The other attention-grabber will be Tom Croft, who returns on the bench to win his first cap in a year after a career-threatening neck injury.

For Italy: How can you not look at Sergio Parisse? The Azzurri talisman has come in for a fair amount of criticism after being sent off for insulting referee Laurent Cardona in the Top 14. Now cleared on appeal, certain figures in the game were all too happy to offer their thoughts on the darker side to Parisse's character that others either chose to ignore, or were unaware of. His inclusion makes Italy a far better side, but he cannot win this match on his own.

Head-to-head: No one loves a battle at the scrum more than the Italians - well, probably no one. Sunday will serve up a feast of large proportions with Mako Vunipola packing down opposite the cult hero of Martin Castrogiovanni. Vunipola has been gradually eased into international rugby thanks to a handful of substitute appearances, and given the bold compliment from England forwards coach Graham Rowntree that he could not find a fault in his game. A first start is warranted and Vunipola will be licking his lips at taking on Castrogiovanni, whose reputation precedes him. If Castro finds the advantage, Italy will have a strong enough platform to threaten. If Vunipola snuffs out an Italian positive, then game over.

Previous results:
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: This one is relatively simple. England have never lost to Italy and at Twickenham their average winning margin over the Azzurri is 33. Whilst contests between these two sides in Rome tend to be edgy, something about Twickenham brings out the worst in Italian rugby. The pack will play their part but as Italy dropped off the longer the game went on against Wales two weeks ago, the same should be expected at Twickenham. England by 18.

The teams:

England: 15 Alex Goode, 14 Chris Ashton, 13 Manu Tuilagi, 12 Brad Barritt, 11 Mike Brown, 10 Toby Flood, 9 Danny Care, 8 Tom Wood, 7 Chris Robshaw (c), 6 James Haskell, 5 Geoff Parling, 4 Joe Launchbury, 3 Dan Cole, 2 Tom Youngs, 1 Mako Vunipola.
Replacements: 16 Dylan Hartley, 17 David Wilson, 18 Joe Marler, 19 Courtney Lawes, 20 Tom Croft, 21 Ben Youngs, 22 Freddie Burns, 23 Billy Twelvetrees.

Italy: 15 Andrea Masi, 14 Giovambattista Venditti, 13 Gonzalo Canale, 12 Gonzalo Garcia, 11 Luke McLean, 10 Luciano Orquera, 9 Edoardo Gori, 8 Sergio Parisse, 7 Robert Barbieri, 6 Alessandro Zanni, 5 Joshua Furno, 4 Quintin Geldenhuys, 3 Martin Castrogiovanni, 2 Leonardo Ghiraldini (c) 1 Alberto De Marchi.
Replacements: 16 Davide Giazzon, 17 Andrea Lo Cicero, 18 Lorenzo Cittadini, 19 Antonio Pavanello, 20 Francesco Minto, 21 Simone Favaro, 22 Tobias Botes, 23Tommaso Benvenuti.

Date: Sunday, 10 March
Venue: Twickenham
Kick-off: 15:00 GMT
Weather: 4° C. Wet and fairly miserable at Twickenham.
Referee: George Clancy (Ireland)
Assistant referees: Nigel Owens (Wales), Mathieu Raynal (France)
Television match official: Simon McDowell (Ireland)

By Ben Coles
@bencoles_

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