England bidding for 6 Nations title from standing start

England is looking to clinch the Six Nations title from a standing start.

The cancellation of last weekend’s match against the Barbarians because of breaches of COVID-19 protocols by some Baabaas players robbed the English of a hit-out before playing Italy on Saturday.

The game in Rome, then, will be England’s first outing since March — the coronavirus pandemic ensured there’ve been no international games in the northern hemisphere until this month — so Eddie Jones’ team is coming in cold.

“We understand the challenge ahead,” Jones says. “We have to get the synthesis of our game right, we have to get the cohesion of our game right. We have guys coming in who are literally going to have two training sessions to be part of the team.

“Then we have to deal with all the expectation around the game. So it’s a great test.”

The English have never lost against Italy in 26 meetings between the teams since 1991. But they’ll likely need more than just a victory at the Stadio Olimpico.

Heading into the last round, second-placed England trails Ireland by a point, as well as having an inferior points difference of 23. The Irish play away to France a little over an hour after the Italy-England game finishes.

The smart money will be on England — courtesy of an expected bonus-point win in Rome — having a four-point lead over Ireland and a slightly superior points difference before the match in Paris kicks off.

All Jones’ players can then do is put their feet up and hope for the best.

That’s the short-term outlook, anyway.

Jones also needs to look at the slightly bigger picture, though, which is why Exeter lock Jonny Hill has been handed his debut. Hill is fresh from helping Exeter complete the Europe-England club title double.

Three more uncapped players — Tom Dunn, Ollie Lawrence, Ollie Thorley — are in the reserves, but the XV is largely tried and tested.

Scrumhalf Ben Youngs will become the second England player after Jason Leonard to reach 100 appearances, and Billy Vunipola returns from injury for his first England appearance since the Rugby World Cup last year.

If England does capture the Six Nations title, it’ll be its third in five years under Jones and its record-extending seventh in 21 editions since the competition was expanded in 2000.

That was when Italy deservedly joined the fold. But it is equally deserving of receiving the wooden spoon for the 15th time.

This could be the fifth straight year the Azzurri will finish the Six Nations without a victory, their last win coming at Murrayfield on February 2015.

Italy lost in Ireland 50-17 last weekend while restarting the Six Nations after seven months in suspension. Despite another hefty defeat, coach Franco Smith took some solace from the performance of 20-year-old flyhalf Paolo Garbisi, who scored 12 points — including a try — on his international debut.

“We are a young squad but the players want to show what they can do,” Smith says.

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Lineups:

Italy: Matteo Minozzi, Edoardo Padovani, Luca Morisi, Carlo Canna, Mattia Bellini, Paolo Garbisi, Marcello Violi; Jake Polledri, Braam Steyn, Sebastian Negri, Niccolò Cannone, Marco Lazzaroni, Giosuè Zilocchi, Luca Bigi (captain), Danilo Fischetti. Reserves: Gianmarco Lucchesi, Simone Ferrari, Pietro Ceccarelli, David Sisi, Johan Meyer, Maxime Mbanda’, Guglielmo Palazzani, Federico Mori.

England: George Furbank, Anthony Watson, Jonathan Joseph, Henry Slade, Jonny May, Owen Farrell (captain), Ben Youngs; Billy Vunipola, Sam Underill, Tom Curry, Jonny Hill, Maro Itoje, Kyle Sinckler, Jamie George, Mako Vunipola. Reserves: Tom Dunn, Ellis Genge, Will Stuart, Charlie Ewels, Ben Earl, Dan Robson, Ollie Lawrence, Ollie Thorley.

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More AP sports: https://apnews.com/apf-sports and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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Steve Douglas is at https://twitter.com/sdouglas80

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