Italy v England is the closing match of Round One of the Six Nations, so here is everything you need to know about the clash in Rome

Six Nations Italy v England preview

England begin their 2018 Six Nations in Rome on Sunday. Despite what head coach Eddie Jones says, England are the bookies favourites to retain their title. Italy are heavily favoured to finish bottom again, but they put out a new-look side, their group are talking about more incremental improvements and who can forget the disarray Italy caused in England’s ranks with their wily ruck work last year? The result may well go as you expect, but the way the game plays out may not…

 

The Key Battle Areas

Youth v Experience

Italy boss Conor O’Shea has decided to promote youth, while having a spine of older heads amongst the team. Sergio Parisse will get cap number 130 while Alessandro Zanni becomes a centurion, though this time in second-row. Leonardo Ghiraldini gets his 90th cap, but the rest of the team is littered with young men fresh to the scene. In fact seven of the team are playing in the Six Nations for the first time. (No one will be allowed to shout “Tommaso!” during the game thought – there are quite a few in that back-line).

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Meanwhile, Jones has opted for the familiar. One of the players he has relied on most, Mike Brown, is preferred at full-back to Anthony Watson, who is back on the wing. He keeps his favoured axis of George Ford at ten and Owen Farrell at 12, Ben Youngs starts ahead of Danny Care, and Dylan Hartley and Dan Cole stay where they were, at the front line of Jones’s pack.

Nowhere could such experience be more telling than at scrum time. Italy’s props, Simone Ferrari and Andrea Lovotti, have just 28 caps between them. Mako Vunipola and Cole, the Lions who pack down against them, have 111 caps to their name.

Related: Six Nations TV Coverage

Ben Te’o’s channel

Some are surprised to see the ex-league tank picked at 13 ahead of Jonathan Joseph, particularly after he took himself away from his club Worcester Warriors, for six weeks, for a bit of therapy, training, recuperation and to return to strength, away from the watchful eyes of his employer. At his own expense, too.

Six Nations Italy v England Preview

Fitness drive: Ben Te’o being put through his paces

Warren Gatland said in his recent book on the experiences of the Lions tour that Te’o did not give a single pass on the tour – whether or not this is true, Te’o was dropped from the Lions’ starting Test XV for the next All Blacks match, in Wellington.

However, young centres Boni and Castello (both called Tommaso) will have a handful. For the very reason Te’o was a starting Lion in the first place, and is trusted to come in for England, off the back of a stint away – he opts for a line, aiming for a shoulder, and as you struggle to bring him down, others can manoeuvre. The Azzurri defensive line better be on high alert whenever lineout ball gets popped down to the scrum-half.

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Innovation stakes

Last year, Italy drew the ire of Jones and the admiration of so many as their no-ruck-no-offside-line tactic, dubbed ‘The Fox’, had the England team scratching their heads for a half. In the aftermath, World Rugby have changed how rucks are refereed.

England have been talking up the training they have been doing behind closed doors, to prepare for the unexpected… And the architect of the fox, Brendan Venter, has hinted that there are a few more ideas like this rattling around his head that he may unleash in future matches.

This may not be with Italy, but there is a belief that in this game, Italy should never just try to match England in traditional rugby warfare, as the English just have more weaponry at their disposal. Innovation is a must for some sides.

Six Nations Italy v England Preview

A bit of chaos: Italy spooked England last Six Nations

The breakdown

O’Shea back his back-row. Hugely. Parisse does what Parisse does, and while England may have their more dynamic players in wide channels themselves as the game wears on, Big Sergio will try anything, anywhere in the park. Flanking him will be Renato Giammarioli and Seb Negri – again, these upstarts have three caps between them, but their coach has promised his side “won’t die wondering” so they’ll give it a crack. They also have the highly rate Maxime Mbanda on the bench – a man O’Shea sees as having a very bright future in sky blue.

England have said they want to show their ruthlessness. Which is likely why they have such a strong bench. At the heart of their pack is the Joe Launchbury-Courtney Lawes-Maro Itoje axis. These guys are athletic and menacing. Can the Italian youngsters cope with the physical onslaught?

The Fixture

Italy v England, Sunday 4 February, 3pm, Stadio Olimpico

The Teams

Italy: Matteo Minozzi; Tommaso Benvenuti, Tommaso Boni, Tommaso Castello, Mattia Bellini; Tonnaso Allan, Marcelo Violi; Andrea Lovotti, Leonardo Ghiraldini, Simone Ferrari, Alessandro Zanni, Dean Budd, Seb Negri, Renato Giammarioli, Sergio Parisse (captain).

Replacements: Luca Bigi, Nicola Quaglio, Tiziano Pasquali, George Biagi, Maxime Mbanda, Edoardo Gori, Carlo Canna, Jayden Hayward.

Six Nations Italy v England preview

Running the show: Tommaso Allan is charged with moving Italy around

England: Mike Brown; Anthony Watson, Ben Te’o, Owen Farrell, Johnny May; George Ford, Ben Youngs; Mako Vunipola, Dylan Hartley, Dan Cole, Joe Launchbury, Maro Itoje, Courtney Lawes, Chris Robshaw, Sam Simmonds.

Replacements: Jamie George, Alec Hepburn, Harry Williams, George Kruis, Sam Underhill, Danny Care, Jonathan Joseph, Jack Nowell.

The Referee

Mathieu Raynal is no stranger to taking a stance. On the recent Lions tour, he has hailed as the ‘new Wayne Barnes’ by the Kiwi press after whistling the match between the tourists and the Crusaders, in which some felt the hosts were harshly dealt with at scrum time. He has been through the mill physically, too. In 2013 he suffered several broken bones after being clattered in a match between Racing 92 and Montpellier. A year later, he was again helped from the park during a game between Munster and Sale.

Raynal’s assistants are Jerome Garces and Nic Berry, while Glenn Newmann from New Zealand will serve as TMO.

The TV Details

The match-up is live on ITV and you can catch highlights on BBC Two or via BBC’s website from 6pm on Sunday. If you are on the run you can listen to the action live with BBC 5live Extra. Click the link for all the TV details for the rest of the tournament.