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Why now is the perfect time for Italy to shock England

By Ben Smith
Marcus Smith of England and Tommaso Menoncello of Italy. (Photos by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images and David Rogers/Getty Images)

Italy versus England could be a 30 for 30 ESPN doco but not a pleasant one, as the Azzurri have 30 losses from the 30 matches played between the two nations going back to 1991.

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Smart money will not ride Italy for a historic first-ever win in the opening round of the Six Nations at Stadio Olympico, there is no form to indicate that they can defy history yet.

But despite contrasting Rugby World Cup campaigns, Italy shipped 96 points to the All Blacks before a pool stage exit, England won bronze after reaching the semi-finals, English rugby is dealing with a malaise that suggests it is rotting from the core.

When someone as competitive as captain Owen Farrell has had enough as a 32-year-old, a player who has gone on record about wanting to play as long as possible and measures greatness by longevity at the peak, something has gone very wrong.

They’ve dished up insipid performances like the 53-10 hammering to France last Six Nations, booed off the Twickenham pitch by their own fans.

They’ve produced the bizzare, utterly baffling wins over Argentina with 14-men at the World Cup. And then they had South Africa on the ropes in a World Cup semi-final, with Farrell’s dagger drop goal building a 15-6 lead before a final quarter collapse.

They seemed to play better with less men on the field last year, and the joke is the players were so bad when they lose one, they become better by subtraction.

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Steve Borthwick has swept the changes for the Six Nations with less than half of his 2023 World Cup squad featuring. Maybe that is a good thing, but it also gives Italy a level playing field.

Borthwick has hit the reset button and is beginning a rebuild, which means unproven & untried combinations, a lack of cohesion and experience.

The tide of change is bubbling underneath the surface for Italy which breeds hope for a brighter future in a competition where they have been a doormat since inception.

In that context, this clash with England is intriguing as expectations are building that Italy can deliver competitiveness and finally make the tournament a six team event.

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In 2020 the U20 side produced wins over Scotland and Wales. In 2021 they had close losses to France and Ireland, the two benchmark teams.

2022 went a step further with a historic first-ever win over England by 6-0 and two more wins over Scotland and Wales.

In 2023 they were again competitive with two closes losses and two wins, again over Scotland and Wales, while at the World U20 Championships they knocked over South Africa at home.

A number of the players from those bumper U20 sides are filtering through to the test side. Nearly half of this year’s squad were Italy U20 reps since 2020, 16 of the 34.

Uncapped South Africa-born Ross Vintcent has been named, boom 21-year-old centre Tommaso Menoncello is back from injury, both from the 2021 crop.

Of the 34-man squad 17 players are from Benetton, who are sitting second on the United Rugby Championship ladder with 7 wins 1 loss behind Leinster.

Benetton are in winning form and Italy can rely upon some of that cohesion to build the combinations in the national side.

More so than Borthwick’s England side who will have very little cohesion to rely upon.

Everyone will remember the 96 points that the All Blacks put on Italy at the Rugby World Cup and few will remember the 17 scored by the Azzurri.

Argentina managed 12 points in their first fixture of the year against New Zealand and just six in the semi-final. The two European powers Ireland and France scored 24 and 27, respectively. Italy’s 17 is not half-bad.

England travel to Rome with a new side, Marcus Smith is out, Italy can trouble them and could absolutely shock them in the right circumstances.

If they can run England close this weekend by losing by 5-10 points, it suggests a competitive Italy is just around the corner.

 

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Comments

15 Comments
A
Anthony 162 days ago

If beating Italy by 3 is a step forward then pity on us all. How many years can the England management repeatedly say they are rebuilding before we can all see they can beat anyone and the new era has begun .
Fin you obviously dont watch the prem each week as no one would say that Sale are better to watch than Harlequins northants, Bath ,exeter.Sarries .
Its just kick chase followed by forward maul after maul .
All of them have no 10,s who go for it. Farrell included.
England will just not find out anything until Ford is put out to grass.
Let someone else have a go to see if its the other backs letting us down or the 9,10 who cannot control the game unless we are on top(ford).
The 9 has been replaced for the better lets see a new 10 .

A
Alex 163 days ago

England man here. Funny how you say England “collapsed” in the final 15. Never one to give credit to the boks are you. In truth, our boys were crushed in the scrum and outplayed completely in that final quarter.

A
Anthony 163 days ago

Een twee drie.

My point exactly.
You have to have an attacking plan .
You then pick attacking minded players.
Farrell was terrific for Sarries and won loads of titles. Yet he was played out of position to put a 10 in who was anything but and was at the bottom of the league and in danger of being relegated .
England have bad form in failing to pick the best players . Simmonds, Alex Goode. Cipriani etc
When things dont work and you keep losing , change the team. .Youngs,ford,farrell ,tuilagi and Billy at 8 were in the team win or lose.
Ireland yesterday were fantastic . Brilliantly coached and had an all round game. Kick when it was needed but off they went when an opportunity came .
Ford either kicks, passes short to the poor centre who immediately gets hammered ,thanks george, or does a pass and run round the back .
He is as predictable as hell and the defence just line up the next player to him .
Maybe the team just needs a better coach and the selection is fine .
We will see in a couple of hours. I hope to eat my words

A
Anthony 164 days ago

Fin
By sticking with a plan England have finished 5th in the 6 nations and played utter rubbish rugby with supporters booing when the damn ball was kicked in the air again when ford and farrell were in an attacking and running position .
Eddie said after his world cup he made a mistake playing ford in the final yet here we are almost 5 years on and he is picked again .
As for eddie changing teams . Ford, farrell vunipola ,tuilagi , all the decision making positions have been picked continually, regardless of form . It has been the wingers shot after one game .
Now is the time to pick a new set of players and stick with them and let them gel like the world cup winning team .
Ford will not bring anything we dont know about him and so another game is wasted .
The ford farrell never worked and sticking with it wasted 4 years.
Yes , kicking is part of a strategy. Its not your go-to first line of attack .That is why England lose so many games .
I have followed england from the Bill Beaumont era .
At least it was watchable rugby . Not like this utterly frustrating lot .
Lets hope Borthwick really does stick to his word and we will see a new mindset .

L
Lucio 165 days ago

Indeed Italy can be “competitive”, but not a winner against ENG. In Rome the weather is and will be fine on saturday (15 celsius, no rain in weeks): a good startin’ point for Menoncello, Capuozzo, Garbisi and Vintcent legs. A 21-15 for the rose side

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Jon 3 hours ago
How Maro Itoje terrorised the All Blacks lineout

Yeah England were much smarter, they put their much vaster experience to use in both the scrum (bending/not taking hit) and lineout (Itoje early sacks) law vagaries. Really though, I know what is there, I’m more worried about Englands locks. We only got to see Itoje and Martin, right? Depth allround in the England camp was probably the difference in the series and the drop off when Itoje reached his minutes limit for the season (it was like the plug was pulled from the charger) was up there with keeping Sexton on the park in that quarter final. What happened there? You have a lot of watching hours experience with locks come blindsides Nick, especially with a typical Australian player make up, have you see a six the size of Barrett absolutely dominate the position and his opposition? I can easily see Scott, and even Martin for that matter, moving to the blindside and playing like Tadgh Beirne with the amount of top locks we have coming through to partner Patrick. Still with the English mindset, because despite running the best All Black team I’ve seen in a long time close, they do need to find improvement, and although I thought they had a lot of good performances from their 7’s (over the years), I really like the prospect of Cunningham-South in his 8 spot and Earl on the open. Can you see Martin as mobile enough to take over Lawes? I absolutely loved his aggression when Jordie ran upto him to try and grab the ball. That alone is enough reason for me to try him there.

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