IN the second of three instalments in our series profiling the Six Nations sides, Iain Morrison looks at the championship’s perennial strugglers to see if there is any cause for hope that Italy can escape the wooden spoon, then assesses that chances of England adding some gloss to their ruggedly positive World Cup campaign.
These two sides kick-off their campaigns with a meeting at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome at 2.15pm on Saturday.
- Coach: The former Argy flyhalf Gonzalo Quesada, who cut his coaching teeth with Stade Francais and promises a more conservative style than Kieran Crawley.
- Captain: Michele Lamaro
- Welcome to the circus: Quesada has whistled up five new faces, three of whom are props: Matteo Nocera, Luca Rizoli and Mirco Spagnolo (which commentator will make the first mistake?). Breakaways Alessandro Izekor and Exeter’s South African born Ross Vintcent are the other potential debutants.
- Missing the action: Dino Lamb and Paolo Odogwu are both ruled out by injury, but classy centre Tomasso Menoncello is back after missing the RWC. Italy are also missing two tighthead props, hence the newbies, because Simone Ferrari and Marco Riccione are both injured; excellence and experience that Italy badly needs.
- Reasons to be cheerful: Benetton are ripping up trees, both in Europe and the URC where they sit second behind Leinster with the same number of wins. They also topped their Challenge Cup pool after beating Montpellier. Might Benetton be stronger than the national side, a few pundits are asking? Quietly.
- Don’t mention: The 96-17 hammering by the All Blacks in RWC’23 or the 60-7 shelacking by France one week later. The fact that Italy has finished bottom of the Six Nations pile since forever. The Azzurri have won one Championship match, by the narrowest of margins, in the last eight seasons and then sacked the coach who inspired the triumph. I could go on.
- Making his mark: Lorenzo Cannone has been one of the finds of the last few years and the No 8 looks set to fill the boots of the legendary Sergio Parisse with aplomb. Can he inspire this squad to greater things?
- Recent results: 6th 2020, then 6th, 6th and 6th.
- Best guess: It’s a young, inexperienced squad with an average age of just 25 while only 11 of the 34 player involved boast 20 or more caps. You hope, for the benefit of the tournament as a whole, that Italy are competitive and actually win a match or two but we are contractually obliged to mention that other outcomes are also possible and, indeed, likely, despite Quesada creating a very good opening impression. Bricks, straw, etc … fill in the blanks yourself. Italy will target Scotland in Rome in the fourth round and Wales in Cardiff one week later, provided enough players are still standing? You hope they win one of them, Wales obviously, but you wouldn’t put your mortgage on it and nor would we.
- Coach: Steve Borthwick
- Captain: Jamie George
- Welcome to the circus: Exeter Chiefs’ brawny blindside Ethan Roots (you hope the English fans shout “Rooooooots” when he clatters someone). Two double-barreled names, Chandler Cunningham-South and Immanuel Feyi-Waboso. Quins’ Oscar Beard and a trio of Scottish qualified players: Sale’s Tom Roebuck and Saints’ midfield duo of Fin Smith and Fraser Dingwall. (Should we be worried?) Dingwall’s dad Gordy was a team mate of mine at London Scottish back in the day. Congrats fella, who are you supporting now!?
- Missing the action: Owen Farrell, and it will be fascinating to see whether the absence of their totemic leader might actually benefit England’s collective effort? (THIS MAY BE WISHFUL THINKING ON MY BEHALF). Ollie Lawrence misses the opening game. Kyle Sinckler has been jettisoned altogether, Mako retired, Billy is overlooked, Tom Curry is injured and Jack Willis, arguably the form flanker in Europe, is not available because he performs his weekly miracles in the South of France.
- Reasons to be cheerful: Several England teams – Quins, Bath and Saints come to mind – are ripping it up in Europe and domestically with a high octane brand of running rugby that is only one step short of mayhem. It is usually successful, earning Saints a 14 man victory at Thomond Park of all places, and enormously entertaining, but it may not translate to the international stage, as Gregor Townsend can testify.
- Don’t mention: The Labour leader! Borthwick is the Kier Starmer of rugby, he doesn’t do interesting and he doesn’t care. This is fine if you are winning, less so otherwise. With the abundantly talented Smith Brothers (Marcus and Fin) regularly pulling rabbits from hats, don’t be surprised if Borthwick opts for George Ford as puppeteer. Even if he starts a Smith at ten, the coach will almost certainly reject the Cavalier style of play of Quins/Saints in favour of the kick-heavy plan that almost boxed the Saffas into a corner in the World Cup semi-final. In that one point game, England kicked a whopping 93 percent of possession. England also ‘boasted’ the slowest ruck speed of the tournament, 6.73 seconds when most teams aim for sub four seconds. (NB ruck speed doesn’t matter much when you send everything skywards).
- Making his mark: Borthwick’s trump card may yet be an Irishman. Former full-back Felix Jones successfully orchestrated the Bokke defence at both RWC’19 and RWC’23. He has already made his mark on his new charges with Borthwick dubbing him “intense” and the England coach should know. The men in white surely won’t leak 18 tries in this campaign, at 3.6 per match, as they did in the last.
- Recent record: 1st … as recently as 2020, come back Eddie! Then: 5th, 3rd and 4th.
- Our best guess: We suspect England will be England, determined, gritty, skilful and proud … but a little lacking in verve and panache. The schedule is forgiving. Again. With Italy away followed by Wales at Twickenham, England get to ease themselves into this tourney and, presuming they beat the two weakest teams out there, Borthwick’s squad should march into Murrayfield for round three with some swagger. We think England may modestly surprise on the upside, finishing 3rd.