This will not be the match that defines Italy’s or England’s Six Nations. England will be expected to win, Italy to lose, just as they have on every occasion of this fixture. But in a reasonably short tournament such as this, momentum is vital.
For Italy, it is a game to take chances, to take risks, just as they did in last year’s match against England, when they employed the tactic of not contesting rucks and thus removing the offside line, something that for 70-ish minutes, managed to throw England completely off their game – Italy were 10-5 up at half-time last year and trailed 17-15 with 10 minutes to go. Italy head coach Conor O’Shea is certainly confident: “We think we’re in a miles better place than we were 12 months ago. I think we have a better foundation than people understand in our game. We will go for it and we won’t die wondering as opposed to being secure. I’m energised because I know we’re making progress.”
For England, this is an intriguing blend of experience and unfamiliarity. There are 689 caps in their starting XV, yet there are some relatively new faces in key positions with injuries to Billy Vunipola, Elliot Daly, Nathan Hughes, Joe Marler and James Haskell – amongst others – giving others an opportunity. Ben Te’o has been handed only his second start for England after he was named at outside-centre, despite not playing at all since October. Jonathan Joseph has every right to feel a little wounded, but remains an excellent option on the bench. I’m excited to see Sam Simmonds at No8 and uncapped prop Alec Hepburn is among the replacements. Shirts may not be earned with even a comprehensive victory, but they can certainly be lost with an unconvincing performance.
What is certain is that England will come out physical. All week, this is the buzzword that has been flying out of the training camp. Captain Dylan Hartley spoke of it being “Rugby 101. You need to be physical, and clinical.” Eddie Jones wants to “smash them at the clean-out, get on the front foot. And when they get the ball they’ll see this white line of jerseys coming at them. They’ll have nowhere to go. We want to be brutal and absolutely ruthless and that’s the team to do it.”
Not exactly the sort of game that Alessandro Zanni would have hoped for after nearly two years of injury. It’s his 100th cap for Italy today, whilst the team includes seven players who will be making their first Six Nations appearance, including Matteo Minozzi at fullback, the centre pairing of Tommaso Boni and Tommaso Castello, youthful flankers Renato Giammarioli and Sebastian Negri, New Zealand-born lock Dean Budd and Simone Ferrari in the front row.
It’s going to be a brutal affair. Join me for kick off at 3pm GMT, 4pm in Rome.
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