Lancaster's replacements will keep Red Rose in bloom
Stuart Lancaster (right) the England head coach talks to his captain Chris Robshaw. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images
England v Italy: Depending on events at Murrayfield, England could already be this season’s Six Nations champions long before they head for Cardiff next week.
A draw between Scotland and Wales today would be the ideal result for Stuart Lancaster’s side, but hoisting the title by default is not the intended English outcome.
“We want to finish the Six Nations strong,” Lancaster said. “We’ve got three from three . . . We want to make sure we finish it off.”
The management have also made it crystal clear that anyone wishing to start at the Millennium Stadium needs to impress against Italy first.
England do not see themselves as 15 individuals cruising towards the chequered flag but as a tight-knit, improving squad with plenty still left in the tank. It makes them exceedingly dangerous from an Italian perspective, regardless of the reshuffled side confirmed by Lancaster yesterday.
Only someone blissfully unaware of the form of England’s replacements so far in this tournament would suggest the promotions of Mako Vunipola, Tom Youngs, James Haskell and Danny Care make the home team weaker than the one that outpointed France.
With Toby Flood returning at outhalf for the injured Owen Farrell and a fit, hungry Tom Croft back on the bench for the first time in a year, the ridiculously short odds on a red rose victory are fully justified. The quality of the English performance, though, will be important, too, not least to Lancaster as he weighs up his best combination to tackle Wales.
“All we want to do is turn in a performance that reflects where we think we are,” he confirmed.
This shared desire to make an on-field statement of intent explains why there are only five changes to the starting XV. Picking Billy Twelvetrees and Billy Vunipola would not have been remotely silly but, in the end, Lancaster felt uneasy about tweaking his midfield having already changed both half-backs. He also felt compelled to include the Leicester flanker, now happily fully recovered from a broken neck.
No one was more taken aback than Croft, who was getting ready to book himself a fortnight’s holiday – “He saved me a lot of cash there” – on the assumption he would be omitted. His comeback from an injury which, according to his specialist, left him as close to paralysis, is a considerable feat of mental strength and Lancaster felt unable to leave him out.
“Deep down I wanted to give Billy Vunipola a chance but against Italy I wanted to play the strongest backrow I could to win the game and Tom’s in it,” said the head coach.
A first start for Billy’s brother, Mako, in the frontrow reinforces England’s increasing strength in depth, with Gloucester’s Freddie Burns having also caught the eye with his attacking dexterity in training this week.
Care’s inclusion at scrum-half will keep Ben Youngs on his toes, too, with Lancaster not yet certain who will start in Cardiff: “Both Danny and Ben know it’s all to play for going into the last week. We’ve not pre-selected a squad for the Welsh game by any stretch of the imagination.”
Italy, meanwhile, have made seven alterations to the side beaten 26-9 by Wales. Their coach, Jacques Brunel, has encouraged more attacking zest but England remain unbeaten against the Azzurri in 18 Test meetings and are in no mood to start losing now.