6N: Favorites meet underdogs as England hosts Italy
One coming-of-age performance in the hostile environs of Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium turned England from an injury-ravaged outsider to the title favorite in the Six Nations.
And the momentum behind Stuart Lancaster’s team after its 21-16 win at Wales is unlikely to be halted by the arrival of Italy at Twickenham on Saturday.
The Azzurri have lost all 20 of their games against England, and nothing in a 26-3 loss to Ireland in their opening match suggests the losing streak will come to an end this weekend.
“We didn’t have the ball much,” Italy coach Jacques Brunel said of the Ireland game, “and when we did have it, we lost it almost immediately.”
It’s hardly the ideal preparation for the Italians for their toughest match of the competition. Then again, they weren’t given a hope on their last trip to London in 2012 but succeeded in rattling England, which edged to an 18-11 win thanks to six penalties from Toby Flood.
A year earlier, England had to come from 15-6 down to beat Italy 19-15 in Rome, so no wonder England captain Chris Robshaw is being cautious.
“It’ll be a completely different pressure compared to Wales,” Robshaw said. “I’m sure most people will be coming to Twickenham expecting us to win comfortably ... but we’ve had tight games in the past.
“We had a great win in Cardiff, but it was the start to the campaign for us, and that’s all. Now it’s about backing that up.”
Lancaster described the win over Wales as one of the best moments in his coaching career, coming at a time when doubts had surfaced about England ahead of a home World Cup.
The second half in Cardiff blew all those doubts away — and now the danger for England fans is getting too carried away.
Such is the strength in depth in England’s squad that Lancaster was able to cope without his first-choice locks, two members of his starting back row in the autumn, arguably his premier prop in Alex Corbisiero, and strapping center Manu Tuilagi.
Flanker James Haskell produced his best performance in an England jersey, replicating his club form for Wasps, and other replacements such as lock George Kruis and try-scoring center Jonathan Joseph were stand-outs against a full-strength Wales team. Lancaster had no hesitation in naming an unchanged lineup and bench against Italy.
“It’s always good to be able to name an unchanged team and to build some consistency,” said Lancaster, who most likely would have called up Geoff Parling as specialist second-row cover, only for the lock to have a setback in his recovery from a knee injury.
Lancaster said on Thursday that prop David Wilson will miss the rest of the Six Nations with a neck injury that will likely keep him out for 10 to 12 weeks.
Italy’s scrum was typically rock solid against Ireland but that was about the only thing that went right.
Brunel recalled two centurions in lock Marco Bortolami and flanker Mauro Bergamasco, after losing for the rest of the tournament flanker Alessandro Zanni and center Michele Campagnaro, both to knee injuries.
In the reserves, Zebre center Giulio Bisegni could make his debut, and Fiji-born flanker Samuela Vunisa, could make his first appearance in the Six Nations.
England: Mike Brown, Anthony Watson, Jonathan Joseph, Luther Burrell, Jonny May, George Ford, Ben Youngs; Billy Vunipola, Chris Robshaw (captain), James Haskell, George Kruis, Dave Attwood, Dan Cole, Dylan Hartley, Joe Marler. Reserves: Tom Youngs, Mako Vunipola, Kieran Brookes, Nick Easter, Tom Croft, Richard Wigglesworth, Danny Cipriani, Billy Twelvetrees.Mike Brown, Anthony Watson, Jonathan Joseph, Luther Burrell, Jonny May, George Ford, Ben Youngs; Billy Vunipola, Chris Robshaw (captain), James Haskell, George Kruis, Dave Attwood, Dan Cole, Dylan Hartley, Joe Marler. Reserves: Tom Youngs, Mako Vunipola, Kieran Brookes, Nick Easter, Tom Croft, Richard Wigglesworth, Danny Cipriani, Billy Twelvetrees.
Italy: Luke McLean, Leonardo Sarto, Luca Morisi, Andrea Masi, Giovambattista Venditti, Kelly Haimona, Edoardo Gori; Sergio Parisse (captain), Francesco Minto, Mauro Bergamasco, Marco Bortolami, George Biagi, Martin Castrogiovanni, Leonardi Ghiraldini, Alberto De Marchi. Reserves: Andrea Manici, Matias Aguero, Dario Chistolini, Joshua Furno, Samuela Vunisa, Guglielmo Palazzani, Tommaso Allan, Giulio Bisegni.