5 talking points before England face Italy
Will Ben Te’o impress for the title-holders?
England open their NatWest 6 Nations title defence against Italy on Sunday and they are odds-on favourites to retain their crown.
Here, Press Association Sport examines five talking points heading into the match.
Over to you, Te’o
How much does Eddie Jones rate Ben Te’o? Ben’s season stats will tell you how much. Last played in October. 7 games played. Lost 6 Won 1. The game Worcester Won Ben went off after 3 minutes. Huge show of faith. Tough Characters. @EnglandRugby— Will Greenwood (@WillGreenwood) February 2, 2018
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.
💙 Il XV di #Italrugby per la prima giornata del #6Nazioni— Italrugby (@Federugby) February 2, 2018
💯 caps per Alessandro Zanni
8️⃣3️⃣ test-match da capitano per @sergioparisse
7️⃣ Azzurri al debutto nel Torneo #ITAvENG pic.twitter.com/PA2F50inAv
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.
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.