Italy vs. England: 6 Players with a Point to Prove in Six Nations Clash
There is nothing quite like a win over Wales to send English rugby into euphoria.
The plaudits came thick and fast for Stuart Lancaster’s men after their 29-18 win, and they were largely deserved for an accomplished performance.
Their opponents in the last round, on the other hand, turned in their worst effort of the championship, drowning in a green sea of gratitude washing over Brian O’Driscoll that subsided for long enough for Ireland to issue the Azzurri a fierce beating.
So England can expect a reaction at the Stadio Olimpico when they run out for only their second visit to the ground. Lancaster has already hinted he will stick with the starting line-up he fielded last weekend, while Italy must find a way to bounce back from a harrowing trip to Dublin against a side brimming with confidence.
Let’s assess the men with work to do.
1 & 2. Jonny May & Jack Nowell
England’s young wingers have impressed with their verve, energy and willingness to run back at the opposition during this Six Nations but one nagging fact stands out.
Among the top four nations in the table, England are the only side whose wingers have not contributed a single point to their effort.
Statistics don’t tell the whole story, and they were both effective against Wales with their counter-attacks and ability to run at space but on the list of attributes a coach would look for in a winger, try-scoring prowess would come high up the notepad.
May has had the best chance, and he blew it, failing to ground the ball when he was a finger nail away from scoring against Ireland, and he has, at times, seemed reluctant to back his pace on the outside, zig-zagging in-field instead.
Nowell had a nightmarish start against France but that was more down to the treacherous bounce of the rugby ball than his own errors. And he linked brilliantly with Courtney Lawes in the sweeping move that so nearly gave Luther Burrell a second try against the Welsh. There is, it would seem, much to come from the young Exeter man.
But the wide men, more than many other positions in the team, are feeling the heat of the other contenders breathing down their necks. Marland Yarde is finding his fitness and sharpness, and Christian Wade is on the comeback path. Anthony Watson of Bath remains on Stuart Lancaster’s radar. And then there’s Manu Tuilagi.
Lancaster’s "pick on form" approach would make the relegation of either Burrell or his midfield mate Billy Twelvetrees impossible, so could the coach be tempted to deploy the Leicester wrecking ball wider out?
There are duties required on the wing such as the diffusion of bombs and kicking from hand that Tuilagi doesn’t possess to any great standard, but it might be tempting for Lancaster to see how the man who was, by some distance, England’s greatest attacking threat in 2012 and 2013, performs with ball in hand from the wing.
The men currently in possession of the shirts could use the championship’s final weekend to quieten such suggestions.
To do so, they need to find their way to the try line.
3. Manu Tuilagi
Reports suggest Tuilagi will be given a place on the bench for England’s final game.
Having watched this England side develop so quickly without him, he will be itching to get on and remind everyone of his value.
Whether it’s at centre or a cameo on the wing, any game time he gets, he will need to underline his credentials to his coaches and show he has lost none of the line-breaking strength that helped rip apart New Zealand in 2012.
4. David Wilson
The Bath prop probably had his best game in an England shirt on Sunday against Wales.
He got stuffed in his first scrum by the Lion Gethin Jenkins, but his run and pass out the back of his hand that led to Danny Care’s opportunistic try early in the game was a rare contribution from a player who is seldom seen in the wide open spaces.
And, albeit with the help of the referee at scrum time, Wilson turned his battle with Jenkins on its head. The Cardiff man ended up in the sin bin and never returned. Jenkins’ replacement, Wilson’s team mate at Bath, Paul Jones, gave him a much harder time of it, screwing a penalty out of him in their first exchange.
So, a decent mid-section book–ended by a couple of bad scrums made it mixed afternoon for Wilson.
England’s first choice tight head, Dan Cole, looks set for a long spell on the sidelines with his injury, so Wilson will have the chances to prove he deserves his place.
He can start in Rome on Saturday.
5. Alberto De Marchi
The man David Wilson will be up against is in the shop window.
De Marchi is rumoured to be on his way to Sale, but he could make the big boys of Europe sit up and take note with another solid performance.
The loose head has shown the kind of scrummaging ability you expect from an Italian front row forward, but he has also proved himself a strong ball-carrier with an eye for the open spaces.
A fine performance against England may just make a few more clubs ponder a move for the 27-year-old.
6. Sergio Parisse
The Italian captain has had a muted tournament by his own high standards.
Usually the standard bearer for his side, we haven’t seen the strong running and silky ball skills we have become accustomed to.
He was oddly stood down last weekend, Italy’s coaches said to allow him time to rest before the visit of England. But that has never been the case before. With a small talent pool, Italy have always needed their best players playing in every match, fitness allowing.
So, with a weekend off to recharge the batteries, we should expect a Parisse firing on all cylinders this Saturday, both to prove the decision to rest him was correct and to prove he is still every bit the player the world knows him to be.