By Owain Jones, Rugby World Editor
England venture into the gladiatorial lair of the 82,000 capacity Stadio Olympico on the back of a gritty, yet ultimately, uplifting 13-6 win over the Scots at Murrayfield. However, any fanciful thoughts of duplicating the try fest in last year’s thumping 59-13 win should be immediately eradicated. Expectations will be kept firmly in check this time around. In fact, you can be sure Stuart Lancaster will happily walk away with a scoreline much closer to 2010’s nervy 17-12 Six Nations victory in the Eternal City, in which Matthew Tait scored the game’s only try.
Although Stuart Lancaster promised the Saracens dominated backline would be playing in an un-Sarries-like manner, you’d be hard pressed to spot the difference in the opening weekend of action. In midfield, Brad Barritt and Owen Farrell were forced to base their game on a rock solid defence and did so creditably. There simply wasn’t enough possession to attack on the front foot, a fact highlighted by Owen Farrell only touching the ball once in the opening half-hour. Lancaster will undoubtedly be using his motivational powers to gee-up Ben Youngs, who seems to have – temporarily – lost his mojo. He will also be looking to bring England’s three speedsters, Strettle, Ashton and Foden into play. If they are put into space they can hurt the Azzurri defence which was opened up far too easily by Julien Malzieu in Paris last weekend. For Italy, coach Jacques Brunel will be hoping runners Gonzalo Canale, Andrea Masi and Tommaso Benvenuti can start exploiting any gaps in the England defensive line.
England need only a point to pass the 500 mark against Italy in the competition and in Owen Farrell they have a kicker who will be doing that sooner than later. Charlie Hodgson is a gifted footballer, with his perfectly weighted cross-kick nearly setting David Strettle away against Scotland, but the tactical kicking last weekend was patchy, with far too much ball was booted down the throats of the Scottish to run back with credit thanks to the dynamic duo, David Denton and Richie Gray.
There was talk throughout the week that the bullocking Ben Morgan would be given a starting berth at No. 8 after Phil Dowson had a fairly underwhelming debut. However, Lancaster has shown commendable loyalty to his backrow and he’ll expect Robshaw, along with Mouritz Botha and Tom Palmer to smash holes up the middle of the park in order to free up the backline. In the Azzurri ranks the considerable frames of Martin Castrogiovanni, Robert Barbieri and the peerless Sergio Parisse will be looking to puncture the English defensive line and whip up the partisan home support.
The scrum is the Italian’s pride and joy and you can expect Castro, Lo Cicero and chums to fancy their chances against a fairly inexperienced England front-five. They will relish attacking the boys in white at every set-piece. At the coalface, Corbisiero, Hartley and Cole held their own against the Scots, yet Italy present an altogether tougher proposition. You can also be certain that locks Marco Bortolami and the gargantuan Quintin Geldenhuys will be doing their utmost to upset Dylan Hartley’s rhythm as he tries to hit his jumpers.
Despite Italy holding home advantage and a far more experienced squad – 698 caps to England’s 217 – I fully expect England to come away with a victory. I’m going for an England win by nine points and two out of two for Stuart Lancaster.