Six Nations 2014: Joe Marler's participation against Italy may be the call of the midwife

Front-rower handed deadline as partner goes into labour with Vunipola set to replace him

Rugby matches are seldom won on hairstyle alone, but there will be something important missing in Rome on Saturday when Italy take the field without the injured Martin Castrogiovanni, the majestically hirsute swamp monster of the Azzurri front row. If England's king of the extravagant coiffure, Joe Marler, misses the game as well – the Harlequin may yet be forced to put parenthood before rugby, at least for this weekend – the fashion statements will seem very tame indeed.

Marler's partner Daisy is in labour, and as the red-rose hierarchy had no clear idea of timing, they had no option but to set their in-form prop a deadline. Unless he materialises at the team hotel in time to participate in the captain's run, scheduled for early afternoon, he will be replaced by Mako Vunipola of Saracens, with the Wasps loose-head specialist Matt Mullan filling the substantial gap on the bench.

Considering the fact that England are already missing two Lions Test front-rowers in Alex Corbisiero and Dan Cole, the coaching staff seemed remarkably relaxed about this prospect. But privately they will breathe big sighs of relief if Plan A stays in place.

Marler is on as hot a streak as any of his countrymen, with the possible exception of two of his club-mates, the scrum-half Danny Care and the full-back Mike Brown, and with Castrogiovanni still suffering from a heel injury picked up during last month's defeat in France, he is the perfect man to maximise red-rose efforts at the scrum.

Italy will have Sergio Parisse, far and away their most effective operator, in the middle of the back row: the captain missed last weekend's thumping in Ireland but is fit to head up the Azzurri's bid to avoid a Six Nations whitewash that they would not have seen coming at the start of the tournament.

"When Parisse is on the field, it's as though Italy have three extra players," said Stuart Lancaster, the England head coach, on hearing the news. All the same, the visitors are expected to win by plenty, despite the narrowness of their winning margins in recent meetings with these opponents.

Whether they can hope to win by enough to bag themselves the title irrespective of what happens elsewhere is a moot point. Ireland have a 49-point advantage going into the final round of matches and if they beat the French in Paris, they will surely be crowned champions.

A one-point victory for Brian O'Driscoll and company will mean England must win by 51, and as the game in the Eternal City kicks off several hours before the one in the City of Light, the cards are very firmly stacked in favour of the men in green.

Lancaster, who confirmed a starting line-up unchanged from the one that performed so well against Wales five days ago, was keen to play the whole thing down. Yes, the presence of Manu Tuilagi among the replacements was a bonus – "He'll make an impact off the bench when he gets on," the coach said of the human bowling ball from Leicester – but almost in the same breath he insisted on some perspective. "I don't want to raise expectations that Manu will just run on to the field and score four tries," he said. "He was on from the start against Italy last year and we didn't score a try at all."

It is Lancaster's view that Italian rugby at international level has taken a leap forward in the space of a year, particularly in the attacking sphere. Certainly they have unearthed a decent back or two – the centre Michele Campagnaro and the wing Leonardo Sarto have shown enough to convince even the most sceptical of observers that the full-back Luke McLean is no longer the only man in a blue shirt capable of making a break in open field – and as a result, the Azzurri will want to play more with ball in hand. This could easily backfire on them, however, for more adventure equals more risk.

England are themselves more confident in attack and they are fit enough to make it count at the back end of the game, wherever Tuilagi ends up playing. Lancaster is highly interested in giving the outside centre a run on the wing, but if circumstances should dictate otherwise, Tuilagi will fill in for either Billy Twelvetrees or Luther Burrell in midfield.

"It depends on how the game plays out," the coach explained. "If anything happens to Twelvetrees, we could bring George Ford [the 20-year-old Bath outside-half] off the bench and shift Owen Farrell to No 12, but it's more likely that we'd bring Burrell inside and play Tuilagi alongside him.

"However, wing is definitely an option for Manu. If you look at his training times over 10 metres and 40 metres he's one of the quickest in the group, and while he would be a different kind of wing to Jonny May or Christian Wade, he'd be a lot like his brother – and he didn't do a bad job, did he?"

He could have said that again. Alesana Tuilagi also spent time at Leicester, scoring Premiership tries by the bucketload, and even though he played Test rugby for his native Samoa and therefore made relatively few appearances on the sport's biggest stages, no one questioned his status as a finisher of the very highest class. Might Manu prove every bit as good? In Rome, he may give us a clue.

BUY RUGBY WORLD CUP TICKETS

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before