Most of the weekend’s thunder will be emanating from the Stade de France on Saturday, but Sunday’s encounter between Italy and England provides us with plenty of intrigue. It’s a potentially fascinating encounter, and Italy’s duel with tournament favorites France last Sunday in Paris was well worth watching. We’ve all said it a thousand times before in the past, but Italy really do look genuinely competitive this year and as a result their journey through the 2022 tournament could be refreshingly different. While we still have trouble seeing them recording a win, we certainly can’t dismiss the idea that they are in with a chance to pull off an upset.
It’s unlikely though that Italy will get that elusive win against an English side smarting from two successive losses to Scotland. Furthermore, the game last weekend at Murrayfield hung in the balance for the longest time. England looked good albeit not as cohesive as they would like. However, we think it’s fairly safe to say that this year England are likely to improve dramatically on their disastrous 2021 Six Nations campaign. England’s opening night nerves in Murrayfield are likely to settle as the tournament wears on, and the crop of new talent England is now banking on for the future start to mesh more effectively with the veterans.
We have to admit that we are looking forward to this one and fascinated to see how well Italy bear up against yet another stern Test. We won’t say much more than that lest we blight their progress with a commentator’s curse. England know what they need to do and look more than capable of getting the result required to get their campaign back on track. So without any further ado, here’s what got us talking looking at the lineups.
Italy finally have a decent second row
The 23 year old Benetton lock grows in stature and ability with every performance in an Azurri jersey. Alongside one of our Italian favorites, Federico Ruzza, Cannone looked impressive last weekend against France. A lot of the statistics pertaining to the set pieces in last weekend’s duel in Paris paint Italy in a fairly positive light. His work rate and tackle count were impressive, while he was particularly effective for Italy in the lineouts. He wasn’t fazed by France’s Cameron Woki and Paul Willemse last weekend and we see no reason that he shouldn’t fare just as well against England’s Charlie Ewels and Nick Isiekwe. If Italy can gain some parity in the set pieces courtesy of Cannone and Ruzza, that level of competitiveness that is clearly Italy’s end goal in terms of development from this tournament will be assured.
Does Eddie Jones really not know what to do with Itoje?
Search YouTube for a clip of Maro Itoje’s 30 second motivational speech to his teammates in the England changing room following their narrow defeat to Scotland last weekend. Once you’ve watched it you’ll understand our conundrum. While we are delighted to see Tom Curry get a shot at wearing the Captain’s armband we have been consistently puzzled by England Coach Eddie Jones continuing reluctance to offer the same honor to Itoje. Itoje has the necessary experience and is such a talismanic figure in the England camp that, at a time when England needs some wise heads speaking from experience, it’s remarkable Itoje is not given more of a leadership role.
If that’s not enough then imagine our surprise at seeing him moved from his traditional role in the second row, to pair with current Captain Tom Curry in the back row. Is he moved there simply to negate the influence of Italy’s highly motivated young Captain Michele Lamaro? We have a hunch that it may well be the case allowing Tom Curry to steal the limelight as Captain of the day. Still we much prefer Itoje in the second row, a role he seems much more effective in. Sunday’s starting Hooker Jamie George has struggled of late with his lineout throwing for England, and is used to having Itoje as an easy target where he expects him to be. Just as England finally looked like they had a balanced back row for the Scotland match, Jones decides yet again to tinker with it. Against Italy he can probably afford to do so, but we still question the logic. Sunday will be the judge, but at least with Itoje you know he will rise to the occasion whatever is asked of him.
Rising to the challenge
Talking of leadership, we have to take our hat off to Italy’s newest Captain and back rower, Michele Lamaro. Watch a replay of the anthems at the Stade de France last Sunday, and it would be hard to find a more motivated leader, despite the obvious challenges that Italy continues to face in the Six Nations in their struggle to be competitive. He simply looks like a natural and his team respond well to him. He seems to have ditched some of the emotions that tripped him up last year, and now appears a remarkably calm and efficient operator in the heat of battle. In short, he may be young but is operating at a maturity level well above his years, and is a quality Italy have desperately needed since the departure of the legendary Sergio Parisse. Like Parisse, Lamaro has a phenomenal work rate and put in 21 tackles last weekend and played the full eighty minutes with no let up in intensity. He still has work to do in terms of technique and won’t be happy with the four tackles he missed, but there is no denying that he is rapidly putting his stamp on Italy’s emerging future. His contest with England’s Maro Itoje on Sunday, will be a genuine coming of age for Italy’s young but inspirational leader.
Chance for a whizz kid to shine
England’s baby faced warrior Harry Randall is the most exciting thing that’s happened to the scrum half role in the English camp for a very long time. While Ben Youngs has been a reliable servant, there is no denying that the kind of fizz that Randall brings is exactly what England need to be competitive against the likes of France’s Antoine Dupont. While he may still be too raw and inexperienced to take on such heavyweights during the course of this year’s Championship, a golden opportunity to test his skills against the likes of Italy and Wales is exactly what England need to fast track him to the point where he can be a genuine option come the World Cup. His duel with Italy’s own fresh faced number nine barely out of his teenage years, Stephen Varney, should be one of the highlights of the afternoon. Varney looked very much the schoolboy against France last weekend, and Randall must surely fancy his and England’s chances in Rome on Sunday as a result.
The future of their respective countries is in both their hands
Yes we know we talked about Marcus Smith last weekend, but we have a hunch that it will be a recurring theme this Six Nations. The same can probably be said about Italy’s Paolo Garbisi. With both fly halves well shy of their 25th birthdays, the future is bright for both of their countries. Last weekend, despite moments of absolute genius, England’s Marcus Smith was nevertheless the apprentice to Scotland’s seasoned Finn Russell. After watching Squidge Rugby’s analysis of the dustup at Murrayfield, we found ourselves understanding to some extent Coach Eddie Jones’ reasoning for pulling Smith off the field. At times the pressure was getting to him and he was making some rather uncharacteristic schoolboy mistakes which his opposite number Finn Russell was capitalizing on. Still, we couldn’t help feeling that George Ford didn’t really add much to the equation to reverse England’s fortunes when he came on, and as a result it might have been better to keep Smith on and allow him to learn from his mistakes. Like many we felt that would have been the more prudent course of action, even if we could understand Jones’ reasoning. Shortly before Smith went off he scored a crucial try for England and seemed to be mastering the situation he found himself in and as a result it might of been better for his future development to let him stay the course on the field.
Much the same could be said of his Italian counterpart this weekend, Paolo Garbisi. Garbisi is vital to Italy’s future plans but had a real 50/50 game against France last weekend. His kick to put winger Tommaso Menoncello was exquisite, but he like Smith at times was guilty of schoolboy errors under pressure. However, much like England it is simply not worth throwing the baby out with the bathwater at this stage. Unlike with Smith and England, Italy and Coach Kieran Crowley appreciate that they simply have no option other than sticking with Garbisi and helping him through his mistakes. It’s the right approach as Garbisi’s talent is there for all to see and given the fact that at the age of 21 he already has 14 caps to his name, he is only going to get better. He has already been fast tracked out of necessity much more than Smith and although the Englishman is the more naturally gifted of the two, Garbisi is more familiar with the big pressure moments that Sunday’s game will bring. It is going to be a fascinating contest between two world class youngsters. Smith may have the better setup behind him in terms of nurturing his development, but Garbisi’s star will keep rising and England will have to continue to keep him under pressure on Sunday.
While it’s hard to disagree with yet another loss for Italy and an emphatic win for England, this is still a match that holds plenty of interest for both supporters and neutrals alike. Italy could well end up being someone’s banana skin further down the road if they continue on their present trajectory. England meanwhile will want to get their Six Nations campaign back on track and will be aiming for a maximum points haul against a traditionally easy target. However, we have a hunch that Italy may not be quite the pushover that England may be expecting them to be this time around.