Six Nations: To win well or ugly, that is the English question
A victory over Italy through organisation and strength of character alone will not be enough to satisfy Stuart Lancaster on Sunday
England do not always have everything their own way in their annual meetings with Italy: in years past, they have lost out at the scrum, conceded ground in the territorial battle, given best in the fight for possession and even finished second in the try count. They seldom get the better of Martin Castrogiovanni, the wild-haired swamp monster of the Azzurri set-piece, or Sergio Parisse, the wondrous No 8 and captain. So why are the odds on a home victory at Twickenham on Sunday close to overwhelming?
The answer is simple. When it comes to system and process – when it comes to collective expertise and organisation across the range of rugby disciplines – England are far in advance of the Italians.
Mako Vunipola, the latest player to break into the red-rose pack, will surely have his work cut out to hold Castrogiovanni at close quarters, especially as the man with a name too long for his shirt suffered unheard-of humiliations against the Welsh prop Gethin Jenkins last time out. But the home side can afford to miss the odd beat individually and still present enough of a united front to get the job done.
It is devilishly difficult to see how England can lose this penultimate Six Nations fixture, so the important question is not whether they will win, but how they win. Stuart Lancaster, the head coach, is far too cute to leave himself a hostage to fortune by agreeing with that sentiment in public, but he said enough to indicate that he will not be satisfied with the kind of laborious, leaden-footed victory his side achieved in Rome last season.
Geoff Parling, the influential Leicester lock who runs the England line-out, admitted in the week that the team's most recent victories had been down to old-fashioned character rather than any new-fangled technical or artistic wizardry. Would Lancaster be happy with something similar this time? Apparently not.
"You need character, because it underpins everything in rugby," he said. "But ultimately, if you're going to keep winning matches at the highest level you need to be hitting eight or nine out of 10 in all areas of your game. You need to dominate physically and take your opponents to places they don't want to go, and you need to be on top of things both in attack and defence. I think Geoff was suggesting that if we're going to stay successful, that's where we need to be, and I agree with him. If we have to win through character alone, I'll take it. But I won't be happy with it."
He will certainly not be happy with his outside backs if England draw a blank on the try front and end up winning the game from the kicking tee. Manu Tuilagi, the human bowling ball, has scored as many tries from centre as the half-dozen wings picked by Lancaster have managed between them, and the coach is acutely aware of his side's deficiencies in this regard. Fifteen games into his stewardship, England have won the try count on only five occasions.
Lancaster would probably have reshaped his threequarter line by bringing the Gloucester centre Billy Twelvetrees into midfield had he not been forced into changes at half-back, where Toby Flood will replace the injured Owen Farrell at stand-off and Danny Care has been given the nod over Ben Youngs at No 9. "A further change on top of that might have been a change too many," the coach explained.
Instead, he has largely restricted himself to tinkerings up front. Vunipola's performance at the sharp end – the naturalised Tongan makes his first start at loose-head prop – will be of great interest, for if he can subdue, or even prevail over, the formidable Castrogiovanni, he will put himself in pole position for the big game in Wales next weekend.
With Tom Youngs back at hooker as reward for his energetic contribution off the bench against France, and James Haskell restored to the blind-side flank after the failed experiment with Courtney Lawes, the red-rose pack should have too much firepower for the Azzurri eight, regardless of Parisse's early return from suspension.
There is also a crackle of excitement about the bench. Freddie Burns, the most gifted attacking outside-half in the land, is likely to play a significant part after ripping up the starting XV in training – "he really did look very sharp," Lancaster reported, almost joyously – while Tom Croft can expect half an hour's meaningful rugby after his long-awaited return from a neck injury so serious that it could easily have left the flanker incapacitated for life.
"My surgeon said I'd gone pretty much as close as I could to being paralysed," Croft confirmed. "It was a hard thing to hear; something I probably didn't need to be told at that time because things were pretty depressing. But now, I'm not fazed by it at all. It's not even in the back of my mind. Realistically, I was looking at the summer as far as a return to international rugby was concerned: after playing for Leicester in the last Premiership match, I assumed I'd have two weeks off and was close to booking a holiday. Then, as I was deciding between a trip to Ireland, a visit to Devon or a few days in Dubai, the call came from Graham Rowntree [the England forwards coach]. I was delighted. I'd rather be here than anywhere else."
With the likes of Burns and Croft in reserve, England should win comfortably even if things are messy for the first 50 minutes or so. But Lancaster is looking for clarity of thought, sharpness of movement and a decisive advantage by the end of the first half – not least because victory by a decent margin will effectively guarantee his team the Six Nations title.
Then, they can travel to Cardiff for the mother and father of a finale, confident in their ability to withstand the unique pressures of rugby life on the far side of the river Severn.
Aiming to cut down the Red Rose: Azzurri to watch
Considered by good Italian judges to be the brightest home-grown player of his generation, the 23-year-old scrum-half from Tuscany is quick enough to function on the wing and will keep the England back-rowers honest with his running game. He also has a fast delivery, although his tactical kicking is suspect.
More than once in recent campaigns, the hooker has featured in "Six Nations team of the tournament" line-ups. He brings plenty of ballast to the front row, scrummages with feeling and has an aggressive streak when it comes to fighting fire with fire at the tackle area. Nobody's pushover.
Season by season, the blind-side flanker has developed into an effective force – particularly in defence, where his tireless tackling is a foundation stone of the Azzurri game. The functionary who allows Sergio Parisse to give full expression to his genius, Zanni is among the first names on the team sheet.
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