Mako Vunipola starts for England against Italy
LONDON (AFP) –
Saracens prop Mako Vunipola is set to make his first start, for Six Nations Grand Slam-chasers England against Italy at Twickenham on Sunday.
Vunipola was one of five changes announced Friday by coach Stuart Lancaster to the team that beat France 23-13 at Twickenham last time out.
New Zealand-born Vunipola won his first seven Test caps as a powerful replacement.
But the son of former Tonga hooker Fe’ao Vunipola now has a chance to impress from kick-off after coming in for loosehead Joe Marler.
Elsewhere in the pack, Tom Youngs takes over from Dylan Hartley at hooker with Wasps flanker James Haskell back on the blindside in place of Courtney Laws.
England, who have never lost to Italy, go into their latest clash against the Azzurri with a new half-back pairing.
The experienced Toby Flood takes over from 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.
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.
Lancaster had long intended to “freshen up” his team ahead of next week’s finale away to Wales while at the same time ensuring it was strong enough to prevent Italy, who threw the Championship wide open by beating France on the opening weekend, causing another shock.
“We were very happy with the way we finished the France game,” Lancaster said in a Rugby Football Union (RFU) statement.
“The impact the replacements made shows that we have competition for places across the board and we have had to make some tight calls.
“Italy will be highly motivated for this game and we will have to perform for the full 80 minutes. I am sure those starting will seize their chance and the bench will also have a significant part to play as the game goes on.
“The support at Twickenham for the Scotland and France games was superb and I am sure the atmosphere will be fantastic again for our final home match of the Championship,” added Lancaster, bidding to guide England to a first Grand Slam since their World Cup-winning year of 2003.
England lead the table by two points from Scotland and Wales, who meet at Murrayfield on Saturday, and have a points difference advantage of plus 17 over the Welsh.
Alex Goode; Chris Ashton, Manu Tuilagi, Brad Barritt, Mike Brown; Toby Flood, Danny Care; Tom Wood, Chris Robshaw (capt), James Haskell; Geoff Parling, Joe Launchbury; Dan Cole, Tom Youngs, Mako Vunipola
Replacements: Dylan Hartley, David Wilson, Joe Marler, Courtney Lawes, Tom Croft, Ben Youngs, Freddie Burns, Billy Twelvetrees.