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

Edoardo Gori

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.

Leonardo Ghiraldini

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.

Alessandro Zanni

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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Ashley Barnes of Burnley scores their second goal
footballMan City vs Burnley match report
Sir James Dyson: 'Students must be inspired to take up the challenge of engineering'
Life and Style
Apple showed no sign of losing its talent for product launches with the new, slightly larger iPhone 6 making headlines
techSecurity breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Arts and Entertainment
Catherine (Sarah Lancashire) in Happy Valley ((C) Red Productions/Ben Blackall)
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

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

Career Services

Day In a Page

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

Homeless Veterans appeal

Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

Scarred by the bell

The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

The Locked Room Mysteries

As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

How I made myself Keane

Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

Wear in review

A look back at fashion in 2014
Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

Might just one of them happen?
War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?