The Azzurri, meanwhile, are coming off the back off a promising but ultimately fruitless performance against Ireland in Rome, and they will be keen to build on any momentum they were able to generate in that encounter.
It will be a tough ask for Conor O’Shea and his charges, with Italy having lost to England in all 24 of the matches between the two nations so far, but you only need to look back to 2017 to see how they can cause problems at Twickenham and that they should not be underestimated. England, on the other hand, will be intent on finishing the Guinness Six Nations strongly and launching a noticeable backlash after their showing in Cardiff curtailed their recent resurgence.
O’Shea, along with former assistant coach Brendan Venter, famously sprung their ‘fox’ tactic on England two years ago and for 40 minutes of that contest, it looked as if Italy might have had England’s number. Eddie Jones and his side regrouped at half time and were able to counter the unusual breakdown tactics of the Azzurri, but it showed how a clever game plan or insightful analysis of an opponent can lead to significant positive gains on the pitch.
It will be interesting to see if O’Shea has anything up his sleeve for Italy’s visit to Twickenham on Saturday, as well as how he plans to deal with England’s kicking game, with the hosts having gone to the boot relentlessly throughout their first three games of the championship. In O’Shea and Mike Catt, Italy have two coaches who have in-depth knowledge of the England players and it would not be surprising to see them implement a strategy which attempts to exploit any weaknesses they know of in the England ranks.
As for Jones, he enjoys the highest win rate of any England coach, including healthy leads over the likes of Geoff Cooke, Jack Rowell and Sir Clive Woodward, all of whom presided over the team in the 1990’s and early 2000’s, when they were the dominant force in northern hemisphere rugby. The most intriguing thing going into this match, from a coaching perspective, is how will Jones have instructed England to play? Will we see a repeat of the heavy kicking game and infrequent midfield involvement from the first three games, or will England look to put the ball through the hands a bit more and attempt to stretch Italy?
Both of these hookers will have a lot of responsibility on their shoulders to create a solid platform from which their respective teams can attack on Saturday. Both teams have had very efficient functioning lineouts through the first three rounds of competition and it’s a surprise therefore to see Leonardo Ghiraldini drop to the bench, although the veteran should help Italy finish strongly.
Where England arguably edge this contest is in George’s conditioning and ability to get off the line in defence and shut down space for opposing sides. He is capable of doing that for 80 minutes, if required, without his set-piece work faltering, whilst Bigi is still relatively inexperienced at this level and this will be only his second start in the Six Nations, not to mention his first trip to Twickenham. If the pressure gets to him, England will smell blood in the water.
Curry is currently tied for the lead in turnovers won in the championship with four, whilst he has also been thoroughly impressive with his work in the defensive line, hunting down fly-halves and first receivers behind the gain-line. He has been a significant component in England’s ability to play a territorial game and then win back possession in key areas.
As for Parisse, the Italian captain may be getting a bit long in the tooth, but he still provides plenty of impact on the pitch. The days of him marauding around the field as a ball-carrier and competing with Billy Vunipola are over, but he is still a thorn in the side of teams at the contact area. If he can target Curry and cleanly and efficiently clear him out, Italy have a chance at the requisite ball security that they will need to string together phases and attempt to hurt England’s defence.
We identified Steyn as the key man for Italy before the championship began and his ability to break the gain-line as a ball-carrier was noticeable against both Wales and Ireland in the past two rounds, with the back rower leading the championship with 18 gain-line successes. If he can replicate that against England on Saturday, then Italy will at least have a puncher’s chance, with the hosts’ formidable defence forced to retreat and unable to bring their impressive line-speed to the fore.
Vunipola has had a strong tournament for England, picking up the slack with powerful carries close to the contact area and sterling work in defence, without necessarily featuring on the highlight reels too often. England don’t need him to be flashy, as they showed in Dublin and against France at Twickenham, but if he can bring that offloading ability to the game on Saturday, successfully extending phases and catching the Italian defence unset, then England will certainly prosper from it.
Farrell is coming off one of his least impressive performances in an England shirt and if there is one player in particular that you would tip to show the biggest backlash on Saturday, it’s the fly-half. If he turns up at Twickenham and plays to his ability, this could be quite a one-sided contest, with his ability to pull the strings in the back line one that Allan can’t quite match, nor is the Italian fly-half likely to receive the same sort platform from his pack that Farrell will enjoy.
If Allan can bring the pressure and intensity in defence that Farrell will, there’s a chance he could get to the Englishman and put him off his game, in the same way Wales did in Cardiff two weeks ago. Do that and he will have a shot at making it a winnable confrontation, but it’s likely to be an uphill battle for the former Scotland age-grade international.
England have turned to Cokanasiga on the right wing after his impressive performances against Japan and Australia in November and this will be a further test of whether or not he can add a missing dimension to the side in attack. One-on-one versus Esposito with ball-in-hand, he has a strong advantage in this match-up.
Where the Italian will likely try to catch Cokanasiga out is by prodding the ball in behind him, attempting to turn him and generally keeping the game anywhere but in front of the Bath wing, who will then be limited in his ability to build up speed and generate the power he so often does. Esposito has the experience to do this, but executing in the cauldron of a game is a very different proposition. In the aerial battle that is likely to take place, he will have his work cut out for him and will need to be arriving sooner than Cokanasiga and owning the space under the ball if he is to have a chance.
With England having gone to it so prolifically in their first three games, it would be naïve not to assume it will play a part at Twickenham on Saturday. Italy are not fielding players out of position in their back three, nor do they tend to play with their wings as high as Ireland do, so finding space in behind is likely to be harder than it was in Dublin or against France.
It will put the pressure on Jayden Hayward to read the game, though, and stay in touch with both his wings, lest England exploit any disconnects between the trio. In return, Italy will have a chance to force the same kind of errors out of Elliot Daly, who for all the positives he brings to the jersey, can still get caught out positionally.
If England do kick heavily, they will be hoping to cause disruption and win ball on opposition lineouts. No Courtney Lawes is a blow to their hopes in that regard, with the Northampton Saint having been effective at the set-piece against both France and Wales, and the emphasis will shift to George Kruis, who is the only England player so far in the championship, outside of Lawes, to have a lineout steal to his name.
That said, it won’t just be England attempting to target Italy’s lineout, but also vice versa. Steyn currently leads the Six Nations with four lineout steals and though George’s form has been excellent to this point at the set-piece, Steyn will be a threat to upset that on Saturday. He managed to disrupt both Scotland and Ireland’s lineouts, as well as truly wrecking Wales’ unit.
As one-dimensional as England did look against Wales, it’s tough to see them being similarly exposed at Twickenham on Saturday.
As a group they are playing well and even against Wales, a number of players impressed, it’s just that execution and decision-making errors in pivotal positions and at vital times cost them. How many bad games does Farrell tend to have in a row? He and the rest of the squad will be keen to redress the wrongs of Cardiff and it’s fair to expect a much-improved performance.
For Italy, Twickenham likely remains a bridge too far. It’s one thing to impress in Rome against an Ireland team that had been heavily rotated, but to go to south-west London and beat a relatively strong England side is a whole different ball game. If their key players can step up and keep it close, that’s probably a decent return for Italy at this stage in their development.
England by 21.
Watch: Sumo and Mils discuss World Rugby’s proposed Nations Championship
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