I was lucky enough to visit Rome last November on a weekend excursion with my better half. It's a stunning city, where every corner is packed with culture, history and tales of legend. I was also amazed with how incredibly friendly everyone was, doing their best to make you feel welcome in their home town and making an effort to speak English, which was much appreciated as my 'Italian' (for want of a better word) would usually result in me inadvertently calling the waiter's mother a whore whilst attempting to complement the Bruschetta.
I doubt though, that the England team will find their hosts quite as hospitable as I did – then again, they're not in Rome to sightsee or to ingest world-record amounts of pasta, pizza and red wine (at least not until after the game, anyway). No, they're in Rome to condemn Italy to the wooden spoon, to a 5th consecutive championship loss, and to attempt to claim the 6 Nations title for themselves and, according to some, put 50 points on their hosts in the process. The Azzurri will not be especially happy about that claim.
The reason for all this of course is that the nature of the title race and the set up of the final game's matches has led to a rather odd scenario. England, second in the table behind Ireland on points difference, must beat Italy and then wait until 5:30pm to hope that France beat Ireland in order to win the title. Despite sitting level on points in the table, Ireland are top with a points difference that is 49 superior to England's total, which in turn is 29 better than France's. If they don't want to rely on the French – and, let's be honest, who does – England will need to post a 50+ point win over their hosts, with 60 points being the ideal number if they want to put together a challenging figure for the Irish to overhaul. It has led to all sorts of claims in the media that England are going for the big win; now that they have put in 3 good performances, they are ready to smash the hapless Azzurri to smithereens.
But let's take a look at the stats. The last 3 times England have been to Rome, they have come away with a win – but never by more than 5 points. Admittedly, the feel-good factor that surrounds this England team may have been lacking for Steve Borthwick's England side, but to go away to Rome, where both Ireland and France collapsed last season, and to expect to come away with a 60 point win is madness, surely? And further to that, it would be an insult to an Italian side who are more than capable of turning over anyone in the Six Nations on their day.
But Lancaster will not allow his troops to expect such a win. Instead, they will aim for it; they will strive to put in the best display of their lives and come out on top. The strict professionalism that has been installed in the England camp will certainly be put to the test as the newspapers proclaim the men in white as serious contenders in the World Cup. But they know they are not there yet. Instead, they will be focusing on the aspects of their performance that they need to get right to beat the Italians – securing set piece ball, building a quick tempo and attacking in the right areas. The right areas, they will have noticed in Italy's game against Ireland, are around the fringes and through the middle of the Italian defence; swinging from side to side poses no threat to the Italy line. The key will be to get their big men running in the 9/10 channel and using plenty of decoy runners in the midfield to create space in the middle. Above all, they need to play at pace – Danny Care is in charge of the tempo – and move the Italian pack around as much as possible; the Azzurri tired badly against Ireland, and the last thing any knackered side wants to see after 60 minutes is a fresh and fired up Manu Tuilagi entering the fray; the Leicester man has garnered headlines this week for his inclusion as a 'super-sub' after 5 months out with injury.
For the hosts, the loss of grizzled veteran Martin Castrogiovanni has been offset by the return of chiselled veteran Sergio Parisse as captain of the side. Parisse knows that his task will be to frustrate the English into trying to force the game and to capitalise on any mistakes made. For that, he will need his two second string props to hold their own in the front row after they struggled against Ireland, and for the lineout to be rock solid. If Italy can secure the set piece and complement this with a strong kicking display from the half-backs – in stark comparison to the kicking game produced by Wales last week – then England will be forced to play in areas they are not comfortable with. Desperation sets in, the 'sevens-style' gameplan comes into play, and that's where Italy can snaffle opportunities, forcing mistakes with big defence.
And you can bet it will be big defence from the men in blue. England may well be lauded as up-and-coming rugby royalty by certain enthusiastic sections of the media, but the Azzurri will not be rolling out the red carpet in welcome on Saturday.
Italy Team News
Italy change three with Captain Fantastic Sergio Parisse returning and Matias Aguero and Lorenzo Cittadini starting in the front-row. Paul Derbyshire drops to the bench alongside Alberto de Marchi with Martin Castrogiovanni ruled out through injury.
Starting Line up: Luke McLean; Angelo Esposito, Michele Campagnaro, Gonzalo Garcia, Leonardo Sarto; Luciano Orquera, Tito Tebaldi; Matias Aguero, Leonardo Ghiraldini, Lorenzo Cittadini; Quintin Geldenhuys, Marco Bortolami; Joshua Furno, Robert Barbieri, Sergio Parisse (Capt.)
Subs: Davide Giazzon, Michele Rizzo, Alberto de Marchi, George Fabio Biagi, Paul Derbyshire, Edoardo Gori, Tommaso Allan, Andrea Masi.
Luciano Orquera. I have to admit I have a bit of a soft spot for the Italian fly half. He may look like Manuel from Fawlty Towers minus the moustache but he punches well above his weight (just ask Gordon D'Arcy, who received a hammering last week) and is capable of the odd moment of magic, as he demonstrated last season. Yes, he is prone to the odd stinker but he will be well aware that, if Italy are to challenge, they must frustrate England and force them to play from deep, which means winning the territory battle. Orquera managed this in defeat at Twickenham last year and, more spectacularly, against France in Rome. In that game, everything he touched turned to gold and the French were left tearing their hair out at being forced to play against a stubborn Italian defence from behind the halfway line – he needs to produce a similar display against an English defensive line that isn't renowned for giving fly halves time on the ball.
England Team News
Stuart Lancaster has been forced to make one change to the side that defeated Wales last week, with Mako Vunipola coming in for Joe Marler, who is with his partner as she gives birth to their first child. Matt Mullan takes Vunipola's place on the bench and is joined by the returning Manu Tuilagi, who replaces Alex Goode with the express intent of causing mayhem in the final period of the game.
Starting Line up: M Brown (Harlequins); J Nowell (Exeter), L Burrell (Northampton), B Twelvetrees (Gloucester), J May (Gloucester); O Farrell (Saracens), D Care (Harlequins); M Vunipola (Saracens), D Hartley (Northampton), D Wilson (Bath), J Launchbury (Wasps), C Lawes (Northampton), T Wood (Northampton), C Robshaw (Harlequins, capt), B Morgan (Gloucester).
Subs: T Youngs (Leicester), M Mullan (Wasps), H Thomas (Sale), D Attwood (Bath), T Johnson (Exeter), L Dickson (Northampton), G Ford (Bath), M Tuilagi (Leicester)
Danny Care. What a tournament the sniping number 9 has had. He seems to have eliminated the two-step-pass from his delivery and improved his decision making and, despite the fact his kicking game is still a work in progress, he has established himself as one of England's chief attacking weapons. Despite the fact he has comically small limbs, with T-Rex arms, he adds tempo to any team, and it is this tempo that he needs to inject on a regular basis against Italy. Ireland showed last week that the Italians become vulnerable when they tire, and Care must ensure that the pack are kept moving around from the first whistle to create those opportunities in the second half. He will also be aware that his lack of awareness of overlaps (where he has gone himself instead of going wide) has cost his side a couple of tries, and England cannot afford to wasteful against the Italians in Rome.
Sergio Parisse v Ben Morgan. The return of my self-confessed man-crush is not only a treat for the eyes (apologies for getting carried away) but also a colossal boost for the hosts. Parisse has it all – power, athleticism, vision, handling ability and even a decent kicking game. He leads by example and he will getting his side fired up for this one, quoting the arrogance of the English media who want the visitors to post a record 50+ points difference on the men in blue. Because he is the heartbeat of the side, he has to make sure that he gets involved when his team has possession as much as possible and not, as he has occasionally done, fade in and out of the game. Opposing him will be Ben Morgan who, I will controversially state, had a very Parisse-esque game against Wales on Saturday – he didn't make as many metres as his predecessor, Billy Vunipola, but his defence, handling and vision were certainly a step above. More of the same will be required from the big Gloucester man, but Lancaster will want him to truck the ball straight up a little more as well. If the visitors can get their hosts backpeddling in defence, they will be very hard to stop.
All this talk about an easy England victory is fanciful and Lancaster will have a job on his hands making sure that his side don't, subconsciously, expect an easy ride. The first half will be incredibly tight and England must focus on doing the basics right and playing the game they want at speed, and avoid becoming frustrated if things don't go their way instantly. It will be the second half where the visitors should aim to strike, but don't underestimate the Italians under any circumstances – they will be battling ferociously to come away with a win in this year's tournament and avenge their narrow losses over the last 2 years. Make no mistake, the majority of this match will be close, and hard-fought, but expect to see England pull away in the last quarter (helped by the appearance of certain large-thighed individual emerging from the bench). England by 21.
Let's take a look at the other games on the final weekend of the 2014 Six Nations:
Wales v Scotland: It's fair to say Wales have been roundly panned for their performance at Twickenham and, to be honest, a lot of it has been justified. Scotland, on the other hand, have been bemoaning bad luck for their loss against France, but the fact of the matter is that they can only blame themselves for failing to close the game out. The reaction to the losses tells me that Wales will be more fired up for this one and I can see them finishing with a decent win. Wales by 12.
France v Ireland: The bizarre set up of the final day of the tournament means that the majority of England supporters may well find themselves supporting the French come Saturday evening. However, few would begrudge Brian O'Driscoll the chance to sign off on his career with a Championship win and you can bet that the Irish will be desperate to send off their legendary centre in style. However, I've got a funny feeling that the French might nick this. Ireland have looked by far the better team but Les Bleus, written off and at home, are in their favourite position to spring a shock. France by 2.