If the key to success is not how hard you hit but how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward, then the challenge for England on Saturday is to get their Six Nations campaign up and running after being knocked on their back by the stiffest of Scottish punches last weekend.
There has perhaps been some overreaction to what was just a second defeat in 12 months that brought two trophies, but England have failed to consistently hit their highest levels in the last year, and the Scotland performance was perhaps the nadir of Eddie Jones’ tenure. How, then, to pick a wounded side back up from the lows of a week ago?
“It’s a bit like being a mad chemist. You are trying to find a bit of everything,” Jones explained ahead of Italy’s visit to Twickenham. "There’s a few smaller group meetings, bigger team meetings, but it is no different to what you normally do. When you win, there is usually a happier mood, but the analytical approach to looking at your performance is still the same.
“This week, because you have had a loss, obviously we have been criticised from North Pole to South Pole and everywhere in between. The mood is not as upbeat so you have got to work a little bit harder to get everyone thinking in the positive way.”
The answer, it seems, is to revert to type. Where a game against Italy might in the past have been an opportunity to look at options further down the pecking order, this is a familiar England side given a chance to right the wrongs and tune up for sterner tests to come, close to full-strength and showing just one solely selection-based change to the XV that started the Autumn Nations Cup decider against France.
George Ford is promoted to start at fly-half, with captain Owen Farrell back at inside centre. Ollie Lawrence, picked to such intrigue but used with such consternation a week ago, drops out of the 23.
Four changes to a starting pack could be seen as significant, but this is more of a reset for England. First-choice propping pair Mako Vunipola and Kyle Sinckler always appeared likely to come straight back in after returning from injury and suspension respectively, while Luke Cowan-Dickie will aim to push his starting case at hooker.
Courtney Lawes – described by Jones as a “front foot guy” in defence and attack – bulks up the blindside, which means Mark Wilson joins Lawrence in slipping straight out of the 23 even as Jones favours a six forwards, two backs split on the bench, with Jack Willis and Ben Earl, who could cover 13 or the wing in a pinch, preferred as back-row options.
“Everyone came into consideration,” Jones said of his selection decisions, including not handing debuts to Harry Randall and Paolo Odogwu. “We want to get back on the front foot and we believe this is the best 23.
“Last week there were various variables at play that in retrospect we didn’t handle well. I take full responsibility for that, I got that wrong, but this week I can guarantee you we are right on the money. We are back on the front foot and ready to go.”
Italy have never beaten England, and it is six years since their last Six Nations win. That barren run appears exceptionally unlikely to be ended on Saturday by Franco Smith’s inexperienced side.
Though the perennial debate over their continued inclusion in this competition may be swirling again, this would be a strange time to unilaterally abandon the long-term investment in Italy. There were the first shoots of life from a nascent group against France in Rome, even in a 40-point defeat: Italy’s raw attacking numbers were encouraging, and with time and greater accuracy in key areas, those should translate to scoreboard progress.
Regardless, this team is certainly rather more interesting than some of the Italian sides that have been led into the Six Nations abattoir over the years. It is a starting side that averages just 15 caps per player, boosted slightly by the return of loosehead Andrea Lovotti and the Carlo Canna’s promotion from the bench, with Smith favouring a dual-playmaker system that showed promise in the autumn.
Canna starts outside of Paolo Garbisi, perhaps the brightest of Italy’s young charges and seemingly already bedded in as the fly-half of both the now and the future. He again partners Gloucester’s Stephen Varney, born in Wales, in a tender half-back duo of a combined 39 years. It may be an Italian side without crucial back-rowers Jake Polledri and Braam Steyn, and livewire full-back Matteo Minozzi, but Monty Ioane adds real thrust from the wing, and the new-look loose forward trio was forthright in the carry last weekend.
All of which means England will take nothing for granted. Indeed in a week of plenty of chatter outside of their Teddington bubble, Jones and Farrell insisted the focus was firmly on their own performance, without overlooking their opponents.
“We have been very concerned about ourselves this week,” Jones said. “We respect Italy, I don’t think you can ever show them a lack of respect. They are an international team and we will show them that respect.”
Farrell echoed his coach: “We have a good feeling in and around the place at the moment. We have felt like we have used the disappointment of the weekend well so far. We have got to make sure we keep using it in building towards the game now.”
The Scotland defeat plainly stung, and this appears a group with the renewed focus they perhaps lacked ahead of the Calcutta Cup. There remains a sense that this England side is at its best with a point to prove and they will be keen to strike a blow of their own. Against this raw Italian side, they may have the ideal opportunity to do so.
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