England will be in hot pursuit of the Six Nations title when they face Italy in Rome. Here, we examine five talking points heading into the Stadio Olimpico showdown.
Eddie Jones pulled no punches when describing the damage done by the Barbarians players whose nights out in Mayfair forced the cancellation of last Sunday’s opener to the autumn, admitting that rugby has become a “laughing stock”. England’s head coach has targeted a stirring performance in Rome to begin rebuilding the sport’s reputation.
Points, points, points
England are not the masters of their own destiny. If Ireland storm Paris and claim a try-scoring bonus point, the title is theirs. Even without the bonus point, an Irish win would mean Italy have to be beaten with a bonus point to stay in the hunt. It would then come down to points difference and there Andy Farrell’s men have a 23-point advantage heading into the final round.
In a quirk of English rugby, Ben Youngs will become just the second player to win 100 red rose caps. Still only 31-years-old, the Leicester scrum-half will have Jason Leonard’s record of 114 appearances in his sights. Youngs made his debut in 2010 and for the vast majority of the last decade has been regarded as first choice in his position by Martin Johnson, Stuart Lancaster and Jones – his three England coaches. It is a remarkable degree of longevity and Jones has challenged him to reach 150 caps.
Tried and tested
Exeter second row Jonny Hill is the only uncapped player starting at the Stadio Olimpico, but Jones has picked a trio of debutants on the bench in Tom Dunn, Ollie Lawrence and Ollie Thorley. Apart from Hill and rookie full-back George Furbank, Jones has kept faith with established internationals who have served him well in the past. With a third Six Nations title of his reign up for grabs, Rome now is not the time for experimentation.
It has been another humbling Six Nations for Italy, who will finish bottom for the 15th time, possibly without registering a single point. They have conceded 144 points and 20 tries heading into the final round and it is impossible to argue a case for a first victory over England. Instead, their goal must be to keep the size of defeat as respectable as possible.