Italian rugby has its weaknesses, but as the scrum is very definitely not among them, the Azzurri's second-string international with England Saxons at Worcester tomorrow is likely to prove highly significant. The hosts have picked two "bolters" for World Cup selection, the Harlequins prop Joe Marler and the London Irish forward Alex Corbisiero, in their front row, and a top-notch performance from either man – or, indeed, both – could force the red-rose manager Martin Johnson to adjust his thinking ahead of the global gathering in New Zealand this autumn.
Marler has played all his professional rugby, not that there has been much of it, as a loose head, and while the publicity surrounding him has had more to do with his penchant for Mohican haircuts than with his technique at the set-piece, he has a touch of stardust about him. He has even managed to impress Jason Leonard, not only the most illustrious of his predecessors in the Quins front row but the most-capped player in English rugby history.
Corbisiero is also a loose head by inclination, but as there is not room for two No 1s – especially No 1s who tip the scales at 18st plus – something had to give. That something was Corbisiero, who must play at tight head tomorrow. It was the obvious move: the American-born 22-year-old is the more experienced prop and has spent time on the more demanding right-hand side of the front row.
The Italians might think the Saxons have armed themselves with three props when they take the field at Sixways, but Manu Tuilagi of Leicester is a centre. Honestly. The youngest member of Samoa's first rugby family – he is 19, and in his first full season at senior level – the spherical Tuilagi's promotion from the Under-20s squad was assured once Mathew Tait, one of the great lost talents of the English game, withdrew from consideration through injury.
With the Saxons coach, Stuart Lancaster, deciding to run the similarly inexperienced Billy Twelvetrees alongside Tuilagi – another Leicester player, Twelvetrees has been understudying the England outside-half Toby Flood thus far this term – one or two midfielders might be feeling a little puzzled. Anthony Allen, for instance. He too earns his corn with the Premiership champions and, by common consent, has enjoyed a productive first half of the season. Brad Barritt of Saracens also misses out, although he has the consolation of a seat on the bench.
Talking of centres, the Gloucester captain Mike Tindall flew home from England's training camp in Portugal after suffering a thigh injury. While he will rejoin the squad at their Surrey base this weekend – no serious damage was revealed when Tindall underwent an MRI scan – there must be some concern over his fitness for the Six Nations game with Wales a week today. Should he be ruled out, Matt Banahan of Bath would be a warm favourite to step in. England already have injury concerns over the wing Chris Ashton and the flanker Hendre Fourie.Reuse content