'Fresh' England leave Italy fearful of Six Nations Slam job
LONDON (AFP) –
Grand Slam-chasing England may have promoted several players from the bench for Sunday’s Six Nations clash at home to Italy but don’t tell Azzurri boss Jacques Brunel they are under-strength.
England, bidding for a first Championship clean sweep since their World Cup winning year of 2003, have won all of their previous 18 Tests against Italy, who’ve beaten all the other major European nations, and it would be one of the all-time great upsets were they to be stopped in their tracks this weekend.
Table-toppers England saw coach Stuart Lancaster ring five changes Friday to the team that beat France 23-13 ahead of a ‘short week’ culminating with a Championship finale against reigning champions Wales in Cardiff on Saturday, March 16.
Saracens prop Mako Vunipola is set to make his first start, having won his previous seven caps as a high-impact replacement, while elsewhere Tom Youngs takes over from Dylan Hartley at hooker.
James Haskell is back at blindside flanker in place of Courtney Laws while, behind the scrum, England also have a new half-back pairing.
The experienced Toby Flood replaces the injured Owen Farrell, out with a thigh strain suffered against France, at fly-half and Danny Care gets a chance to start at scrum-half instead of Ben Youngs.
“Danny Care has waited patiently for his opportunity,” explained Lancaster. “In freshening the team up, sometimes when you have a guy who is desperate to play that can help the team.
“Mako gets his first start and everyone is delighted with that. He has thoroughly deserved his chance.”
On the bench, Freddie Burns provides fly-half cover in Farrell’s absence while Leicester flanker Tom Croft returns to the Test scene 11 months after a broken neck nearly left him paralysed.
Italy threw the competition wide open on the first weekend with a 23-18 win over pre-tournament favourites France.
But comprehensive defeats by Scotland (10-34) and Wales (9-26) have checked that early progress.
Italy were like a ship without a rudder against Wales in the absence of captain Sergio Parisse but the world-class No 8 will be back at Twickenham after his ban for abusing a referee in a French club fixture was reduced on appeal.
“In our last match we didn’t produce the energy we can do, that’s not what we expect of our team,” said Italy coach Brunel.
“If we’re not at the top of our game physically, if we don’t have the desire to face up to the English, it’ll be tough and we could concede a lot of points,” added the Frenchman.
No-one better exemplifies Enland’s physical threat than 110kg Samoan-born centre Manu Tuilagi, a try-scorer against France last time out.
Brunel, who has restored Gonzalo Garcia to midfield in what appears to be a bid to counter the Leicester man, jokingly said of Tuilagi: “We won’t let him out on the pitch, in fact we’ll lock the changing rooms.
“Seriously, though, no-one has yet stopped him, he’s very good in one-on-ones.”
Garcia is one of seven changes to the Italy side, five in the pack, but with Luciano Orquera, an outstanding play-maker in the win over France, replacing Australian-born Kris Burton fly-half.
Brunel, who hopes Orquera can add sophistication to the Azzurri’s approach, said: “We worked this week on what we did badly against Wales, our territorial occupation and the different types of our kicking game.”
But it is the return of Parisse that Lancaster believes will help England guard against complacency.
“Parisse coming back is a huge psychological lift and it adds a huge amount in terms of experience,” he said. “All things point towards Italy putting in a strong performance and we have to be ready.”