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Italian opportunity knocks for England

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Italian fixture can provide England with key last-minute RWC learnings

England have long since named their World Cup squad, the group is – more or less – healthy, and there was a resounding victory for much of the perceived first XV against Ireland, so what learnings are left to find out in the side’s final Italian challenge on Friday?

Plenty of the players who are roundly considered to provide depth for England out in Japan later this month were utilised against Wales, with Eddie Jones’ side splitting those back-to-back fixtures one apiece with their local rivals, and key players, such as Maro Itoje, Manu Tuilagi, Billy Vunipola and Owen Farrell, have been kept fit and look in good form heading into the tournament.

Conversely, Italy’s preparations for the World Cup have not gone so smoothly. Conor O’Shea’s side lost to Ireland in their opener in Dublin before succumbing rather abjectly to a 47-19 loss at the hands of France this past weekend. Sandwiched in between those two losses was a morale-boosting 85-15 victory over Russia, although that result arguably says more about where Russia are right now than it does about Italy.

Sitting in a pool with New Zealand and South Africa, O’Shea and Italy will know that they need to take a major scalp if they are to have any chance of progressing to the knockout rounds and in that regard, England are suitable opposition this Friday in Newcastle, even if Jones opts to rest many of his frontline troops.

With Italy, you would assume, set to go hard at the fixture and give themselves some momentum before they head out to Japan, this could prove to be a further solid test of where England are with the depth options in the current squad.

With Mike Brown failing to make the 31-man squad and Elliot Daly having played all three warm-up games so far at full-back, this is the perfect opportunity to put Anthony Watson in the jersey and make sure that the contingency plan at the position is in working order. Watson is the obvious choice, regularly playing 15 for Bath and Jack Nowell, the other full-back option in the squad, is still out with an ankle injury.

Watson has played there for England and Jones before, although those moments have been fleeting with two starts in the 2018 Six Nations and a 2017 Test against Australia the only extended periods he has had in the position at international level.

Having Daly start every game at full-back for England in Japan would be asking a lot of the former Wasps back and whether through rotation or injury, you would expect to see Daly given at least some time off. As such, a glimpse into how Watson would fill in at the position could be valuable.

Having missed the first two games this summer with a rib injury and then only making the bench for the victory over Ireland, Friday also represents an opportunity to get some valuable minutes into the legs of Mark Wilson.

The blindside was one of the major successes of the past season for Jones and England and although there is plenty of buzz about the recent Tom Curry and Sam Underhill combination, it would be surprising if Jones doesn’t turn back to Wilson for the crunch fixtures in the pool against France and Argentina.

Pragmatism aside, it would also be enjoyable to see Wilson run out in Newcastle, with the Kendal-native having spent his entire professional club career at the Falcons up until a loan move to Sale Sharks this summer.

England italian learnings

A start for Mark Wilson at St James’ Park would send a positive message about rugby’s status as a sport for all parts of the country of England (Getty Images)

Not only has he shown that players at the Newcastle club can force their way into England contention, a feat rarely seen since the days of Jonny Wilkinson, Toby Flood and Jamie Noon, but this is also one of the rare moments that England take a game away from their lucrative and comfortable Twickenham home. It would be fitting for Wilson to be part of the XV at St James’ Park.

Some of the other injury concerns will warrant cotton wool, such as Mako Vunipola and Nowell whose chances of making the tournament are rated as “touch and go” by his Exeter boss Rob Baxter, but if Ruaridh McConnochie and Henry Slade are fit, they need minutes themselves. The latest update from England is that they are both “progressing well” in their injuries.

McConnochie was one of the more surprising selections by Jones last month and a hip injury has denied him his first international cap to date, while Slade’s summer has been impacted by a toe injury which has prevented him from taking part in England’s first three games.

Watson and Joe Cokanasiga have picked up the slack on the wing, while Jonathan Joseph and Tuilagi have both featured at outside centre, but Jones will be keen to see both of these players prove their match fitness on Friday.

At the other end of the spectrum, one man who warrants a rest is Billy Vunipola, with the No8 having played all 240 minutes of England’s first three games. He is the only specialist No8 in the squad and although the uptick in carrying from the likes of Itoje, Curry and Kyle Sinckler has arguably made his role a little less integral for England, he is still one of the very first names on the teamsheet and one whose skill set cannot be emulated by anyone else in the England squad.

Although England’s chances of success don’t necessarily hinge as crucially on his fitness as they did a season or two ago, his contribution will be invaluable in Japan. Therefore, making sure there is an alternative for him, potentially in the games against Tonga and USA, as well as keeping him away from the risk of injury this week, could be one of Jones’ main priorities for the Italy game.

England italian learnings

Keeping Billy Vunipola fit, fresh and firing is a priority for England (Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images)

Wilson filled that role well at times last season and though he isn’t the same kind of ball-carrier that Vunipola is, he showed that he can pick up the slack, particularly with the attritional work around the fringes. This would then free up a spot on the flank for Lewis Ludlam and an opportunity to see how he combines with one of Curry or Underhill.

With Wilson and Ludlam providing a third lineout option, there is no need to carry a lock on the blindside, giving England another opportunity to showcase a more mobile flank pairing, something which certainly brought positives against Ireland at Twickenham.

One final thing that Jones may be looking for in England’s last hit out before flying to Japan on Sunday is some significant playing time for Jack Singleton. The English coach will hope that he doesn’t have to overly rely on Singleton in Japan, as it will likely mean an injury to either Jamie George or Luke Cowan-Dickie, but there may be times when he will need to go to the third man.

A minor knock could rule out either player from one or even two fixtures, but not be serious enough to warrant a replacement being called. In that scenario, Singleton will need to be ready to step up. George cemented his spot last season with consistency at the set-piece and in the loose, while Cowan-Dickie has looked sharp as a thrower of late, something which hasn’t always been said of him in the white of England.

The set-piece did not prove to be an issue for Singleton during his time at Worcester Warriors and he is coming into a unit that has had plenty of success of late, not to mention an excellent coach in Steve Borthwick and a number of athletic and well-drilled targets. On paper it looks good, but theory doesn’t always translate into a practical setting and to give him 40 minutes or more to show that in this case it does wouldn’t be the worst idea for England.

Regardless of how Jones approaches the fixture in terms of squad selection, only significant injuries or a defeat are going to cause real consternation in the England camp, with the side having enjoyed a largely positive preparation period for the World Cup. Learning some important lessons in a couple of key positions in navigating this final hurdle will leave England feeling confident going into their tournament opener with Tonga on September 22.

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Italian fixture can provide England with key last-minute RWC learnings