Sun, Feb 04, 2018 - Page 11 News List

Italy hopes fade against England

AP

So much for England being depleted for their tilt at a record third straight outright Six Nations title.

“The magic sponge has done well for us,” England coach Eddie Jones said, after naming a close-to-full-strength team for the opening match of their title defense against Italy today.

A slew of injuries — there were 13 senior players out at one stage last month — was the primary factor behind Jones saying England should not be cast as the tournament favorite.

Even last week, Jones was preparing to be without influential players such as Chris Robshaw, Mike Brown and potentially Maro Itoje for the trip to Rome. There was barely a mention of center Ben Te’o, who had not played a competitive game since October last year because of ankle trouble.

It came as a surprise when Jones was able to name all four of those players in his team and also another recently injured player, Jack Nowell, on the bench.

The chances of Italy gaining a first ever win over England — at the 24th time of asking — suddenly took a nosedive.

“Maybe Sunday after the match it will be a difficult night,” Italy coach Conor O’Shea said. “But we’re preparing matches to win them and the great thing about sport is that anything can happen.” When it comes to the Italians, Jones knows this all too well.

In this fixture last year, Italy used a tactic dubbed “The Fox” at Twickenham Stadium in London to bamboozle England by frequently not contesting the breakdown. That freed-up their players to get beyond the usual ruck line and block any passes behind the tackle area.

So bewildered were England’s players that they were asking French referee Romain Poite how to counter the unusual approach, and they were only two points ahead with 12 minutes to go before going on to win 36-15.

An angry Jones, who told his players before the match to “take Italy to the cleaners,” said after the match Italy played against the spirit of rugby.

“We’ll see what they throw up this time,” Jones said about Italy last week when asked if his players were expecting the unexpected.

The topic has come up frequently in and around the England camp this week, but the match dubbed “Ruckgate” has not been mentioned by the Azzurri, at least not in public.

Italy will need to come up with something special to end their drought against the English. The best they can realistically hope for is keeping the score down.

England’s big absentees are injured No. 8s Billy Vunipola and Nathan Hughes, while flanker James Haskell is suspended. Otherwise, the big guns are all there, led by Dylan Hartley as England starts their bid to become the first team in the tournament’s 135-year history to win it outright for three straight years.

Jones has urged his team to “play with intensity, aggression” and to “physically intimidate Italy.” Italy has lost its last 12 Six Nations matches and is looking to avoid finishing last for the third straight year.

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