Friday, 13 February 2015

Six Nations Preview - England v Italy

Valentines Day.  A day of profound statements of love, extravagant purchases in bids to win affections and forcing singletons to contemplate their very existence.  Or, in my personal view, the biggest, most commercialised pile of tripe since the Crazy Frog song.  My girlfriend is a lucky lady (although I am taking her to the cinema to see some mainstream pornography, apparently).  Of course, love will be far from the minds of England and Italy's starting XVs by the time that kick off comes around at Twickenham.  You would hope so, anyway.
These two sides approach this game from completely opposite ends of the expectation spectrum.  The hosts, England, are now being prematurely hailed as world beaters after a fine victory in Cardiff, arguably their best Six Nations display for a decade, given the circumstances.  With the back-row earning particular praise for an all action display, the losses of Tom Wood and Ben Morgan feel slightly less significant than before, and trio were ably supported by strong showings from Jonathan Joseph, George Ford, Ben Youngs and Mike Brown.  All players in key positions, and it bodes well for England that they are starting to click.  Of particular note was the way the forward runners manage to integrate themselves into the attack of the shoulders of Youngs and Ford.  Previously, far too often, we have seen the forwards rumble around slowly and then the backs spin it wide and end up nowhere.  Here, England played at a high tempo and with Youngs and Ford playing flat, the runners were able to pick dangerous holes of their shoulders – Lancaster will want more of the same this weekend.

Italy, of course, went into last weekend's game against Ireland as underdogs despite beating the Emerald Isle there in 2013.  The sad fact is that the Azzurri have regressed since that heady day, and won just one match in 2014, at home against Samoa – a run which included away losses against the Samoans, Fiji and Japan.  There are talented players within their ranks, of course, legends such as Parisse, Castrogiovanni and Bortolami, but the same old positions come back as problems for the men in blue.  The half backs remain unconvincing, with 28 year-old Kiwi Kelly Haimona looking like a physical presence with relatively little in the way of creative spark, and the centres look shorn of class – particularly now youngster Michele Campagnaro has been ruled out with a knee injury.  Of course, they managed to frustrate Ireland for large portions of the game – their defence was stifling and aggressive, their set piece solid – but in terms of a tangible threat they seem to be sorely lacking in invention.  And Twickenham is not a place to come and chance your arm in that respect.
Yes, England have been overhyped since that superb win in Cardiff, and in many ways the Italian game is a lose-lose situation; unless they win by a cricket score, their performance will be picked apart by the media.  And with rain forecast, there is a chance that the Italians will succeed in turning the game into an arm-wrestle.  But the fact is, England will – well, they should – have too much in the locker for the Azzurri. 

It may be Valentines Day, but an upset is out of the question for the rugby romantic.

England Team News
England are unchanged from the side that beat Wales last weekend.  Stuart Lancaster had hoped to pick Geoff Parling among the replacements but the Leicester lock is yet to recover from a knee injury, and George Kruis and Jonathan Joseph make their first Twickenham starts.

Starting Line-up:  15-Mike Brown, 14-Anthony Watson, 13-Jonathan Joseph, 12-Luther Burrell, 11-Jonny May, 10-George Ford, 9-Ben Youngs; 8-Billy Vunipola, 7-Chris Robshaw (captain), 6-James Haskell, 5-George Kruis, 4-Dave Attwood, 3-Dan Cole, 2-Dylan Hartley, 1-Joe Marler
Subs: 16-Tom Youngs, 17-Mako Vunipola, 18-Kieran Brookes, 19-Tom Croft, 20-Nick Easter, 21-Richard Wigglesworth, 22-Danny Cipriani, 23-Billy Twelvetrees

Key Player
Ben Youngs.  The Leicester man had a superb outing against Wales and, in my view, should have been handed the man of the match award.  His ability to snipe past tight 5 forwards and create confusion was the key behind England's improved attack after the break and reminded us of that spark when he broke onto the scene in 2010.  The problem with Youngs though is that he has been infuriatingly inconsistent in previous seasons gone – brilliant one match, abysmal the next.  But the captaincy at Leicester has done him the world of good – his form has been building all year and, now he has his tail up, it is his job to keep the tempo up and ensure England aren't dragged into an arm wrestle by Italians.

Italy Team News

Italy make four changes from the side beaten by Ireland with Mauro Bergamasco and Marco Bortolami returning to the pack along with prop Alberto De Marchi.  Giovanbattista Venditti starts at left wing, Luke McLean goes to full-back and Andrea Masi moves to inside centre.
Starting Line-up:  15-Luke McLean, 14-Leonardo Sarto, 13-Luca Morisi, 12-Andrea Masi, 11-Giovanbattista Venditti, 10-Kelly Haimona, 9-Edoardo Gori; 8-Sergio Parisse, 7-Francesco Minto, 6-Mauro Bergamasco, 5-Marco Bortolami, 4-George Biagi, 3-Martin Castrogiovanni, 2-Leonardo Ghiraldini, 1-Alberto De Marchi

Subs: 16-Andrea Manici, 17-Matias Aguero, 18-Dario Chistolini, 19-Joshua Furno, 20-Samuela Vunisa, 21-Guglielmo Palazzani, 22-Tommaso Allan, 23-Giulio Bisegni
Key Player

Kelly Haimona.  The new fly half did a solid job in the autumn internationals and certainly wasn't poor against Ireland, but 'not poor' is not really what the Italians need.  Haimona is a big unit for a fly half and can certainly offer some ballast, but that won't worry strong defences like England's – the Azzurri need creativity and tactical awareness.  If Italy are to have a sniff in this game he will need to play an astute tactical game – getting his side into the right areas with the boot.  If he can do that, then the men in white will become frustrated, the home crowd will grow restless, and the visitors will be in with shout.

Key Battle
Billy Vunipola v Sergio Parisse.  Two very different number eights but they are both critical to the way their side plays.  It was no coincidence that England's threat grew throughout the game as Billy Vunipola began to make more yards on the carry.  Once he beats the first man, he often sucks in two or three more defenders and, with quick ball, that creates plenty of gaps for England to exploit.  Parisse, as is well-known, has been one of the world's best eights for some time and is altogether more athletic prospect than Vunipola, getting involved in all facets of the game – carrying, passing and tackling.  He was, however, kept quiet against Ireland and his side simply have to find a way to help get him into the game so he can influence proceedings; you get the feeling that the man who we so the most of out of these two will decide whether we have a romp or a nail-biter on our hands.

I don't think we'll see the all-singing, all-dancing win that some sections of the media seem to expect against Italy.  Against a side determined to slow the game down and play with extreme physicality, and with conditions forcast to be wet, I suspect that we will see a relatively tight game for 50 or so minutes.  England though, do have their tails up and have more than enough class to see off any potential upsets – although they will be scrutinised more than ever this weekend.  England by 19.

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