England win not enough with Eddie Jones’ men under pressure to perform


n 27 meetings across 30 years, England have never lost a Test match to Italy, Saturday’s visitors to Twickenham.

So, in the minds of English fans and pundits, a Six Nations meeting with the Azzurri — especially at Twickenham — is a golden opportunity for a festival of tries and new faces. An autumn of effective but unimaginative rugby, followed by a pitiful performance in defeat to Scotland, has only hardened that resolve to explore the vast depth and breadth of England’s talent pool, the 13 member clubs of the Premiership.

But those of us outside the bubble, who can only have access to a carefully-curated corner of the picture, are always more adventurous, ambitious selectors than the gilded few who get a say.

And so it has proved with England coach Eddie Jones. Normally he likes to use Italy to experiment a little; indeed he gave four debuts in England’s meeting with them in October. And the points have tended to flow — although often after a gritty opening to the game.

That title-sealing win last year saw England lead 10-5 at half-time, before winning 34-5. Thirty four points, by the way, is the fewest England have scored in any of their six meetings with Italy under Jones.

This time, Jones has opted for his tried and tested. He has savagely dumped Ollie Lawrence, after 10 touches across three starts, opting for established and experienced order in a backline boasting an average of 65 caps.

Up front, Jamie George is the only front-line casualty in a “change of order”, in Jones’s words, with Luke Cowan-Dickie.

More game-time for Lawrence and Max Malins in the backline, or Ben Earl and Jack Willis in the back row (the last three are at least on the bench), or even debuts for Harry Randall and Paolo Odogwu will have to wait.

Given the toughest part of England’s campaign is yet to come — away games in Cardiff and Dublin, and a visit to Twickenham from France — such chances are unlikely to come in this Championship. That would be a shame and a missed opportunity.

With his back to the wall, Jones has picked a big, bruising pack, including the return of Kyle Sinckler — accompanied by a six-two bench — to get England back “on the front foot”, the words he used repeatedly on Thursday, and rough Italy up.

Cowan-Dickie and Jonny Hill bring mauling skill from Exeter and Courtney Lawes is back on the flank to provide further heft. The return of two dynamic props will certainly help. Owen Farrell said England had not sulked, while Jones said the meetings this week have been short, describing their tactics as: “Get on the front foot. We want to be back to playing good front-foot rugby. Get on the front foot. That’s about it.”

England will win, but against Italy more than mere victory is expected. They need to win well, with a bonus point — not least to pad a points difference tally that could be crucial come the sharp end of this Championship.

Jones spent the autumn saying that professional sport’s bottom line is results. That is true, but agitated England fans want to see a bit more. A simple victory in this game does not necessarily prove that England are on the right track.

Jones has stuck with his tried and tested, allowing his premier players to battle their way into form. But by doing that, he has placed them on trial in this game, from the misfiring Elliot Daly to Billy Vunipola, who was slothenly last week, via Farrell and Ben Youngs.

England always expects — but that feeling is a little more acute this week.

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