Regular guest and former England international Nick Easter joins us to preview the second match of Steve Borthwick’s tenure as the Red Rose host an improving Italy at Twickenham on Sunday.
With England announcing a changed side with a completely revamped midfield and with Italy able to select their star flanker, Jake Polledri, as he returns from injury to augment an already powerful Azzurri pack, it’s everything to play for as Borthwick’s men need to deliver a performance to back up the words of their coaching team.
“Firstly, I’d like to welcome Jake back to Test rugby,” Easter said.
“I was coaching Worcester Warriors in his comeback game earlier on in the season in the Premiership Rugby Cup at Kingsholm and it was wonderful to see such a talented player coming back from a horrendous injury.
“With some symmetry, Jack Willis also starts his first tier one Test since his injury and I know both of these classy players will be desperate to put their injuries behind them. Both will have been to some dark places considering the amount of time their lay-offs have been but that will increase their appreciation of ‘wearing the shirt’, and will focus their minds on just what they missed when they were out injured.
“I am delighted to see Jack start. I would have picked him last week and, at his best, he is the most complete specialist openside England have available. He’s capable of incredible moments and already the feedback from Toulouse has been quite staggering, as he has impressed all over there.”
“The other massive talking point is the selection of Owen Farrell at 10 with Marcus Smith stood down to the bench. I want to be clear, there are arguments for either of these guys to start, but whoever they choose needs the right players around them as clearly the 10/12 combination of both players is sub-optimal at Test level for England,” he said.
“With Ollie Lawrence and Henry Slade outside him, Owen has the contrast he needs – the power of Lawrence and the skills of Slade. Borthwick has the insurance policy of Smith on the bench to change the game at any point, and it’s key that if it’s not going well he responds swiftly.
“However, selection is one thing but delivery is now the next step, and the biggest concern I have is the lamentable defence shown by the midfield last weekend. The rush was slow from the defensive leader and key to this, the man standing as the third defender, usually in the 12 channel, was rushing inwards and with his shoulders closed off towards the defensive line. This allowed a big gap to appear as the fourth and fifth defenders also failed to react to that inward line of blitz, making that big hole that you saw Scotland take advantage of on a few occasions, notably the Duhan van der Merwe try.
“The key is that third defender runs straight, fast and with square shoulders, so he can scan both sides of the attacking line. He’s able to react if he needs to move in, or drift if the attack goes wider. It is absolutely key that Slade and the other defenders read the defensive movement with him, otherwise the likes of Luca Morisi and Juan Ignacio Brex, star performers last weekend, will have a field day.
“The kicking game needs to improve massively too; it’s about how you kick, not how often, and execution last week was poor – over kicking to space against power runners cost England dearly. They must kick contestables and get Ollie Hassell-Collins, Freddie Steward and Max Malins in the aerial game where England possess a clear advantage. This is one of Owen Farrell’s superpowers and I expect his presence to fix this issue.”
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“This is a wonderful Italian side, one blessed with a very competitive forward pack that edged the scrum against France due to a brilliant display from loosehead Danilo Fischetti. Maybe they’re not quite the tight focused side of Italy we saw in the 2000s, but that’s because they’re reacting to the playing brilliance of Ange Capuozzo, whose His cheek is infectious,” the ex-England back-row said.
“Meanwhile, the coaching philosophy of Kieran Crowley, who really goes under the radar when great managers are discussed but has delivered a string of quality performances from Italy, has also stood out.
“Morisi and Brex are key to their plan; nobody has ever questioned either players’ defence but they’re both hitting the line in phase play time after time to set up their pacy outside backs. Factor in the tireless carries of the Cannone brothers, Lorenzo and Niccolo, and Seb Negri and it’s clear Italy play a simple plan of getting behind the primary defence in hard phases to unleash their pace merchants.
“England need to win those gain line collisions and they mustn’t underestimate that task bearing in mind Negri and his cohorts probably shaded that battle against the number two side in the world last weekend. It’s going to be a massive workload again on Ollie Chessum, Lewis Ludlam and Ellis Genge, but around them Willis and Lawrence will give them support in those duties, something absent last weekend.
“The scrums will probably be at par, but I do think England’s speed across ground in the lineout might be an advantage, and again, expect to see breakaway and dummy mauls at pace to keep the Italian forwards moving around.”
The bottom line
“The key for Steve Borthwick is, whilst he may still have some leeway in results, the performances have to impress and he must realise he only has four meaningful matches leading up to the Rugby World Cup. This is a must win, but it’s also a must perform for England. There’s so many subplots on selection, formation, set-piece questions and so on, and to answer all in such a short space of time is an unenviable task, but one that cannot be ignored,” Easter added.
“Italy will come to Twickenham in form and will bring a no cares given attitude to the match. They’re not expected to win by the general public but the educated rugby watcher knows that they’re a massive challenge and probably have one of their best ever chances to grab that elusive win against England, the only Six Nations side they’ve not beaten.
“If things go well, I’d expect England to win by 12 to 16 points, but we cannot ignore the sheer depth of quality in this Italian side. I’ll call my win for Borthwick and his team but with the caveat that it should surprise no-one if Italy turn up, get a few breaks and even if they don’t deliver shockwaves, they’ll certainly create a few tremors.”