Preview: Italy v England

14th Mar 2014, 12:24

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Excelling: Joe Launchbury

Excelling: Joe Launchbury

England, having secured the Triple Crown, now march on to Rome looking to keep their hopes of winning this year's Six Nations alive.

England, having secured the Triple Crown, now march on to Rome looking to keep their narrow hopes of winning this year's Six Nations title alive against Italy.

Assuming the result goes to form - Italy have never beaten England in the Six Nations and shipped 46 points against Ireland last weekend - then Stuart Lancaster's troops will be left kicking their heels wondering what might have been in Paris on the opening weekend.

Italy will feel a similar sense of frustration, because a tournament that started so brightly against Wales in Cardiff has now faded away, much as we have come to expect over the years.

The Azzurri are now the Kings of the False Dawn. Perhaps the key to their progress is to expect nothing.

Jacques Brunel is clearly trying to revert away from Italy's previous mantra of forward dominance and minimal back play, and good on him. But it's a long process, one that certainly won't be complete by next year's World Cup.

There is a ton of potential though. Michele Campagnaro, Alberto de Marchi, Tommaso Allan, Edoardo Gori, Joshua Furno and Leonardo Sarto - these are the players to carry Italy forward, helped by the experience of a rejuvenated Luke McLean along with Sergio Parisse and Leonardo Ghiraldini.

It all sounds great on paper, but in a way Italy are where England were two years ago when Lancaster took over. They are searching for the blend of experience and youth, and identity too. Allan might be the next great Italian number ten since Diego Dominguez, but he's only 20. Only with encouragement can he emerge into a superstar.

Italy's position in the Six Nations table just feels oddly familiar, with four losses from four and a points difference of -68. It's difficult to back them here, but if they are to win they have to produce more possession and territory than last week against Ireland, when their stats were 25 and 21 percent respectively.

Perhaps England shouldn't be too harsh on themselves. France have gone from Wooden Spooners to three wins from four, but England and Ireland are the most improved sides in the competition and by no coincidence are also the top two teams. England even pip Ireland to the accolade of 'Most Improved', despite Joe Schmidt only having six months at the helm.

The New Zealander did however arrive at his new job with an established squad of internationals packed full of Test caps. Brian O'Driscoll, the departing great it still seems hard to imagine the Six Nations without, had more caps than England's whole back-line when the two sides met at Twickenham. Yet England won that day.

While Welsh heads are beginning to look around for answers to the apparent slow death of 'Warrenball', England fans are beaming. Twickenham during the last two matches has been deafening.

Under Lancaster the united crowd are less interested in the search for the next pint (still a priority it should be stressed) and more in their love of a team that are providing substantial entertainment. It's a harmonious accord, one that Lancaster is desperate to carry through to the Rugby World Cup.

One key reason for this infatuation is down to the improvement of a number of key players. Take Joe Launchbury and Courtney Lawes as a prime example. When this partnership was proposed before the November Tests last year there was concern - of the two, both in their early 20s, who was the line-out leader? The experienced head? Lawes had spent the best part of his England career flying into tackles without any regard for his safety, let alone outwardly showcasing the ability to mastermind England's set-piece.

People change though. The combination have been a success, with both players hitting double figures for rucks, tackles and running an efficient line-out with Dylan Hartley, part of the reason why England have dominated possession. Against Scotland, with all three players on the field, England won 22 throw on their own ball.

Launchbury may lack the gritty imposing facial expressions of Martin Johnson, but he is beginning to play like him. At 22 he finds himself in a group of locks involving Sam Whitelock, Pieter-Steph du Toit and Eben Etzebeth that have unlimited potential. He even did enough against Ireland to warrant praise from Paul O'Connell.

Danny Care and Owen Farrell's positions as England's half-back pairing up to the next Rugby World Cup are now set in stone, which is good news on two counts. Care gives England the tempo they need to keep defences guessing, while Farrell has absorbed the lessons taught on the British and Irish Lions tour to Australia and come back a better player. He has never lacked confidence, but is now playing with the attacking verve so many have previously criticised him for lacking.

Finally there is Mike Brown. According to Planet Rugby's poll your favourite to win Player of the Tournament for this year, Brown has shone from Paris right the way through to Rome for England at the back. His two scores in the opening matches were well taken, but his assist against Ireland and his industrious running against Wales - making 156 metres - are what make him stand out. Don't be surprised if he dots down in Rome at some stage on Saturday.

England's spine is intact. A year ago Manu Tuilagi might have been rushed back in for this match, but the result against Wales and gradual development of their new centre pairing in Billy Twelvetrees and Luther Burrell has gone better than the Twelvetrees-Joel Tomkins combination from last year.

There is depth across the squad, a leadership group beginning to flourish and a head coach whose achievements on and off the field so far deserve high praise. Should England not take the Six Nations title this year, wiser for their late slip in Paris, it will not be a disaster. You sense they are building for something bigger.

Ones to Watch:

For Italy: One of the players of the tournament, and it's not Sergio Parisse. Joshua Furno is currently part of the sinking ship at Biarritz, but you sense he'll be moving on to continue playing in the top flight. The 24-year-old has stood out at lock and on the blindside throughout, scoring his first try for the Azzurri in the loss to Scotland. Born in Australia, Furno appears to be a real talent.

For England: Winning their fifth and fourth caps respectively, Jonny May and Jack Nowell are yet to score their first tries for England but Rome could be the ideal opportunity. May has magic in his feet but can be frustrating with his sideways, isolating runs. Nowell has yet to convince all quarters but is bursting with talent, possessing the all-round game others lack and also showcasing good strength to break tackles. With Marland Yarde, Christian Wade and Ben Foden all waiting to try and come back in, some tries will ease the pressure.

Head to Head: No Martin Castrogiovanni and no Joe Marler means an unexpected collision on one side of the