We take a look at some of the big issues and team news as England aim to kickstart their Six Nations campaign with the visit of Italy to Twickenham on Saturday…
Will backline change benefit England?
Eddie Jones has returned to a familiar strategy as England welcome Italy to Twickenham on Saturday, with Owen Farrell moving to inside centre and George Ford slotting in at fly-half.
Leicester Tigers’ Ford was among the replacements for the Calcutta Cup defeat to Scotland as Farrell lined up at 10 and Ollie Lawrence was given the opportunity in the No 12 shirt.
However, Lawrence barely got a touch of the ball as England’s back line were starved of possession and has been left out the matchday 23 for this week’s game completely, although it was Farrell in particular who came in for criticism from some quarters after the abject display against the Scots.
The captain has the full backing of his head coach though, using an analogy from his other sporting love, cricket, to describe why he believes Farrell is the right man to partner Henry Slade in the England midfield in a bid to get the backs firing again on Saturday.
“To me it’s a bit like a Test batsman who averages 60 and then gets a duck,” Jones told Sky Sports. “It’s a bit different if you’re a Test batsman who averages 25 and gets a duck – people can call for your head.
“But I think it’s entirely inappropriate for Owen. He didn’t have a good game on Saturday, but he wasn’t the only one and I don’t understand why there is such a strong desire to criticise him at this stage.
Faz on preparations for #ENGvITA 👇🏴🇮🇹#GuinnessSixNations
“A lot of the responsibility fell on Owen last week and we’d like to spread that responsibility. We’d like to get our back three and Sladey into the game more, and with George and Owen at 10 and 12 I think we’ll be able to do that.”
Varney touts Italy’s next generation
In the 21 years Italy have been part of the Six Nations, England are the one team they have yet to record even a solitary win against and few are giving them any chance of doing so on Saturday.
This is a new-look Italy team under Franco Smith though, with the South African having his eyes very much on the future as he starts bringing through some of the players who have helped Italy record wins over Wales and Scotland at U20 level in recent years.
One of those is 19-year-old Stephen Varney and the Gloucester scrum-half is in no doubt Smith’s decision to turn to youth will soon start to yield results.
“People view Italy as a losing nation, but it’s a different generation coming through now,” Varney, who was born in Wales but has Italian ancestry on his mother’s side, said.
“We’re new to it and were highly motivated to win because of the past, but it’s a totally different squad to what it was 12 or 24 months ago.”
Last Saturday’s opening Six Nations match in Rome was a case of the same old story for Italy though as they were beaten 50-10 by France and a further defeat at Twickenham would extend their losing run in the Six Nations to 29 games.
One crumb of comfort for the Azzurri was the attacking verve they showed though and Varney insists they have learnt from the mistakes make in defence against the French.
Franco #Smith ha annunciato il XV che sabato scenderà in campo con l'Inghilterra a Twickenham ➡ https://t.co/hVtIFnOIcn#ENGvITA @SixNationsRugby #insieme #rugbypassioneitaliana pic.twitter.com/Cx28Zt45Ns
“We lacked a lot of execution at critical moments,” Varney said. “In big parts of the game we would knock the ball on or make a mistake, we can’t make errors like that in a Test match game.
“But there were plenty of positives, especially in attack. We attacked well and broke through the French defence quite often, but we need to work on our defence.”
Jones shuffles his pack
It is not only in the backs where England have made changes, with Jones deploying a completely changed front row for the clash with Italy.
Mako Vunipola and Kyle Sinckler, back from injury and suspension respectively, have come in as props and Luke Cowan-Dickie replacing Jamie George at hooker, with the Saracens man dropping to the bench.
Jones believes Cowan-Dickie’s style will be more suited to what he expects to be a tight opening against the Azzurri, allowing George to flourish in the loose as play opens up in the second half.
“Luke did well when he came off the bench and Jamie is traditionally better when the ball is moving around,” Jones said.
“In an Italian game, the ball tends to move around a lot more in the second half than it does the first, and he’ll be at his best there and Luke will give us the power in the first half.”
As one of the favourites along with France to claim this year’s Six Nations title, plenty of eyes will be watching to see if the defending champions can emulate Les Bleus’ convincing win over Italy.
Jones is not worried about comparisons, but is eager to see an improved performance after England stuttered to Autumn Nations Cup glory and then lost to Scotland.
“We want to play better – we don’t go out there and practise to play badly,” Jones said. “The games in Autumn were difficult and we played badly against Scotland, but we’ll turn that around this week.”
England: 15 Elliot Daly; 14 Anthony Watson, 13 Henry Slade, 12 Owen Farrell (c), 11 Jonny May; 10 George Ford, 9 Ben Youngs; 1 Mako Vunipola, 2 Luke Cowan-Dickie, 3 Kyle Sinckler, 4 Maro Itoje, 5 Jonny Hill, 6 Courtney Lawes, 7 Tom Curry, 8 Billy Vunipola.
Replacements: 16 Jamie George, 17 Ellis Genge, 18 Will Stuart, 19 Charlie Ewels, 20 Ben Earl, 21 Jack Willis, 22 Dan Robson, 23 Max Malins.
Italy: 15 Jacopo Trulla; 14 Luca Sperandio, 13 Juan Ignacio Brex, 12 Carlo Canna, 11 Monty Ioane; 10 Paolo Garbisi, 9 Stephen Varney; 1 Andrea Lovotti, 2 Luca Bigi (c), 3 Marco Riccioni, 4 Marco Lazzaroni, 5 David Sisi, 6 Sebastian Negri, 7 Johan Meyer, 8 Michele Lamaro.
Replacements: 16 Gianmarco Lucchesi, 17 Danilo Fischetti, 18 Giosu Zilocchi, 19 Niccol Cannone, 20 Federico Ruzza, 21 Guglielmo Palazzani, 22 Tommaso Allan, 23 Federico Mori.
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