England v Italy should be a foregone conclusion this weekend but, the Six Nations does unique things. England must take the Italian Rugby challenge seriously, though England Rugby head coach Eddie Jones must learn from lessons of the past.
This year’s Six Nations is far from over. Current standings aside, results over the next two weeks are critical to all sides fortunes in 2018 – especially if Scotland can raise their game and beat Wales at Murrayfield.
It is a big if because Scotland has been disappointing this year despite a crippling injury list and Wales have learnt the art of winning ugly. The return of Finn Russell is a massive boost for Scotland and he may hold the key to England’s Six Nations hopes.
Jones must remember Japan last November
England will be watching keenly because any slip up by Wales will result in England going in as heavy favourites for the title. England has two home games against two struggling teams. It is a wonderful opportunity for England to pile on the points in front of an expectant Twickenham crowd.
However, we have been here before, most recently last November with Japan as the opposition. The week eartlier, England had pushed the All Blacks mightily close the previous match, and everyone was expecting an avalanche of points against the Japanese. Eddie Jones chipped in with a ‘Go to the Temple and pray’ quote and it was anything but. England huffed and puffed against the Red Blossom before a raft of replacements eventually helped England over the line.
The reality is that the Japanese are improving and Italy are struggling – despite the tireless efforts of Conor O’Shea. Continued exposure in the Super XV and wise southern hemisphere recruitment has bolstered both the Sunwolves and Japan. Last weekend, the Sunwolves claimed a historic first away win in New Zealand over an All Black-laden Chiefs outfit.
The Azzurri are developing and O’Shea and his men have done wonders to the Italian franchises. The performances of Benetton and Zebre in the Guinness PRO14 League are proof of progress but…. at test match level, prospects are bleak.
In the cold light of day, 20 successive losses in the Six Nations is a stark fact that won’t go away. Not to mention the possible threat of relegation or a replacement with Georgia the most likely newcomers.
Italian players need to have the ‘game of their lives’
How will Italy fare on Saturday afternoon? O’Shea is not afraid to try the unpredictable if we rewind back to 2017. That day Eddie Jones and all of England had no idea how to counter Italy’s legal offside tactics. It was a master plan and put England totally off their game. England should know the rules by now but they need to expect the unexpected from Italy. The Azzurri have to hope that Messrs. Sergio Parisse, Jake Polledri and Michele Campagnaro can have the matches of their lives.
In Parisse’s case, he has done it many times. Polledri is in the world-class category and is the heir apparent to Parisse when the former finally steps down. Campagnaro is devilishly good when free from injury and can create holes in England’s defence – if he is at his best? This is the never-ending question that Italy will need to answer if they are to have any chance against England.
They all have to be at their best for the full eighty minutes.
Not just the talisman as mentioned above but the whole match-day squad. Recent form suggests that they are nowhere near – particularly outside of Rome.
Perplexing changes for England
England has made some changes, as expected – but perplexing with the starting choices. Jones surely had to give Dan Robson a start alongside George Ford but has kept both on the bench? The much-discussed Brad Shields gets a start over the outstanding Mark Wilson and the returning Chris Robshaw.
Shields has to produce the goods on Saturday to convince the doubters that he is worthy of an England jumper. It is a muscular line-up in the centres with Ben Te’o taking the place of Henry Slade. Again it is difficult to see the merit in this selection given how well Henry Slade has played in the Championship this year? England won’t lack punch through the middle but where is the Midas touch that Slade can deliver? For the likes of Te’o, Shields and Ford they must perform otherwise their World Cup places are on the line. Eddie Jones has a plethora of talent; experience and youth to call upon so starting berths are at a premium.
England cannot take Italy lightly
It is an obvious cliché but England must not take Italy lightly. They nearly came a cropper against the Japanese because they were trying to run in tries from the first whistle. England’s renaissance, Wales aside, has been built on fierce intensity in their line speed and defence. We should add in a much-improved attacking kicking game to their strengths as well. A poor second half in Cardiff should not cloud England’s progress.
They look fit, conditioned and hungry. Therefore we should expect the likes of Kyle Sinckler, Ellis Genge and Billy Vunipola to carry on with their wrecking ball duties to put England in the ascendancy. It would have been useful to see whether George Ford could unleash England’s backline with his passing ability. When Ford is at his best, there are few better outside halves who can dissect an opposition with his range of passing. Saturday would have been a perfect platform for Ford to silence any remaining doubters on his role as deputy to Owen Farrell.
England to search for Clinical Edge
England has shown the rugby world that they are serious contenders for the World Cup in the autumn. They now need to show everyone that they can be ‘clinical’ particularly when they are expected to win. With all due respect to Italy, on paper, England should win comfortably. However, any team that is captained by Sergio Parisse and coached by Conor O’Shea will be well prepared.
That means that England has to set their stall out to impose their intensity and ferocity in the first twenty minutes. If they succeed in doing that then the points should come freely in the second half.
England should win with something to spare in front of their home crowd to set up a humdinger of a match against Scotland.
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