Italy v England talking points

Dylan Hartley and Sergio Parisse with Six Nations trophy

England open their Six Nations title defence against Italy on Sunday and they are odds-on favourites to retain their crown. Here, we examine five talking points heading into the match.

Over to you, Te'o

Eddie Jones has taken the bold step of selecting Ben Te'o ahead of Jonathan Joseph at outside centre despite his near four-month absence with a high ankle sprain. Te'o is a destructive ball carrier who will bring a physical edge to England's midfield, but a question mark hangs over his fitness.

Number eight void

Te'o's presence takes on extra importance due to the absence of number eights Billy Vunipola and Nathan Hughes, England's most effective sources of momentum. Vunipola in particular will be missed and into his shoes steps Sam Simmonds, the lighter yet effective Exeter back row who will be looking to argue his case for inclusion in the next World Cup squad.

Mischief-making Azzurri

Jones has described Italy as "mischievous" when reflecting on what they might have up their sleeves on Sunday. Last year they bamboozled the champions at Twickenham with their controversial 'ruckless' tactics and although a law change means that ploy can never be used on a rugby field again, England are braced for more surprises.

Bonus point bonanza

Italy can be dangerous opening day opponents, ready to spring a surprise when they are at their freshest and least affected by injury. England are odds on favourites to leave Rome with a victory from their title defence opener, but in a Six Nations widely tipped to be among the closest yet, securing the bonus point could be critical.

Azzurri progress?

Conor O'Shea has entered the second year of his reign as Italy coach and while it remains early days, it is hoped this championship will show signs of his ambition to bring greater levels of professionalism to the national team. Their place in the Six Nations remains assured despite calls for relegation, but their record of 12 bottom-place finishes in 18 tournaments is a statistic that must be improved.

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