The first of the Six Nations games as the competition kicks off.
Steve Borthwick will once again lead England out onto Twickenham this weekend as they kick-off their 2009 Six Nations Championship against Nick Mallett’s Italian side on Saturday afternoon.
A lot has changed in English rugby over the last 12 months. The Martin Johnson era (that which was meant to restore England back to their glory days) has had a slow start, but could all be turned around with a good showing this February and March.
The weather conditions in the UK have no doubt made it hard for all teams to properly prepare for this weekend but one would certainly bet on Johnson and, Italian coach, Nick Mallett having their charges ready to go.
With Jonny Wilkinson still sidelined, Danny Cipriani dropped, Charlie Hodgson overlooked and Toby Flood struggling, England have turned to former Leicester Tigers star Andy Goode. The Brive man has enjoyed a fantastic few months in France and thoroughly deserves his call but admits himself that there is great pressure on him to make his opportunity count.
“There’s a lot of guys out there snapping at my heels and wanting to get their hands on this shirt. If I don’t perform well then they’ll be in with a shout,” said Goode.
“I’ve got to back my own ability to try and do that and keep hold of the shirt and help England have a successful Six Nations.”
For the English players of course this is also the first round of ‘trials’ for the 2009 Lions tour. Having struggled in November, a number of the players cases for Lions spots seem to have been badly hurt and the likes of James Haskell, Tom Croft, Phil Vickery and Paul Sackey will be very keen to start the new campaign off with impressive performances.
The Italians, even with England not in the best shape, face a seriously difficult task this weekend. Still without a win over England in 14 attempts, the closest the Azzuri have ever come to success at Twickenham was a 23-15 defeat back in 1998.
Italy lock Marco Bortolami for one knows it will be no easy feat but has backed his side to push Borthwick’s men all the way on Saturday.
“It will be a very tough and physical match, they play in a way where they will try to get on top of us right from the start,” said Gloucester man Bortolami.
“The first phase of defence will be vital for us. We’ll have to be strong in the line-out, the scrum and tackling to stop them getting over the gain-line.
“It will be difficult to stop them, they have very physical and dynamic backs, we’re going to have to hammer them.
“It will be important for everyone to do their job because we won’t get a moment’s respite given we’re coming up against the World Cup runners-up.”
Italy’s strength is generally considered to be their pack, where the majority of their front eight play for top English or French clubs.
One of those is Leicester Tigers prop Martin Castrogiovanni, who is making his comeback to the team after a long injury absence, although he acknowledges he won’t make it through the whole match.
“I’ve been out for a good eight months,” he said “I’m not in my best form because I haven’t played much.
“But however much time I play, whether it’s 40 or 50 minutes, I’ll leave it all on the field.”
Mallett’s biggest selection shock was of course the naming of Stade Francais flank Mauro Bergamasco at scrumhalf – something that surprised the player himself.
“Nick has had this idea for some time because he wants the team to play with a certain rhythm but I honestly had never even thought about it,” said the older of the two Bergamasco brothers.
“But due to injuries, this opportunity has presented itself so I hope I can offer something new to the team and I’m looking forward to the challenge.
“I hope to be able to add something above all in attack, whereas in defence it’s all about covering the right space.
“Certainly I will enjoy taking on Nick’s challenge but for sure I will have difficult moments when things aren’t going so well. I have to stay positive.”
Staff and AFP
Players to watch:
For England: All eyes will be on Goode. Thrust back into the spotlight, with a chance to stake a real claim for the No.10 spot with England, Goode’s every move will be scrutinized.
Debutant Armitage, that’s Steffon, will also definitely be someone to keep your eye on. Physical and determined, the Irish man could cut the heart out of any Italian attack. Harry Ellis should also be out to impress – having won a late call up due to the loss of Danny Care the Tigers’s star will be reunited with his mate Goode and will need to take advantage.
For Italy: Time will tell if coach Mallett is a genius or insane. Either way the man you could make a huge difference to the game is flank-cum-scrumhalf Mauro Bergamasco. Elsewhere in the Italian team it is always worthwhile keeping an eye on Andrea Masi, powerful captain Sergio Parisse and the returning Leicester Tigers man, Castrogiovanni.
Head to head: The battle of the two No.8’s should be a titanic encounter. Nick Easter, so often undervalued by his country, is in good form while Parisse, a nominee for World player of the year in 2008, truly does carry the Italian side at times.
The centre pairing too should be in for an almighty scrap. Tindall has returned to partner Riki Flutey, a new combination, but one which would dearly like to endear itself to head coach Martin Johnson. For the Italians the combination of the two Gonzalo’s, Canale and Garcia, should fancy their chances of testing the England pair.
Without a doubt though, the crucial matchup will be between, late call-up Ellis and the new Italian No.9. Ellis often plays as if he were an extra loose forward so the battle between himself and Bergamasco could be quite entertaining.
2008 6N England won 23-19, Stadio Flaminio
2007 6N England won 20-7, Twickenham
2006 6N England won 31-16 Stadio Flaminio
2005 6N England won 39-7 Twickenham
2004 6N England won 50-9 Stadio Flaminio
2003 6N England won 40-5 Twickenham
2002 6N England won 45-9 Stadio Flaminio
2001 6N England won 80-23 Twickenham
2000 6N England won 59-12 Stadio Flaminio
1999 WC England won 67-7 Twickenham
1998 WQ England won 23-15 McAlpine Stdm
1996 AI England won 54-21 Twickenham
rugby365 Prediction: I am never one to really disagree with BJ Botha. In his iafrica column earlier this week the Ulster strongman suggested that the English would win by 10 points at least. Given their poor showings last November it is difficult to get too excited by this England team but we cannot really see the upset coming either. Expect England to win – probably by a fair bit more that just the 10 points, but I’m not sure we will be impressed just yet.
England: 15 Delon Armitage, 14 Paul Sackey, 13 Mike Tindall, 12 Riki Flutey, 11 Mark Cueto, 10 Andy Goode, 9 Danny Care, 8 Nick Easter, 7 Steffon Armitage, 6 James Haskell, 5 Nick Kennedy, 4 Steve Borthwick, 3 Phil Vickery, 2 Lee Mears, 1 Andrew Sheridan.
Replacements: 16 Dylan Hartley, 17 Julian White, 18 Tom Croft, 19 Joe Worsley, 20 Ben Foden, 21 Shane Geraghty, 22 Mathew Tait.
Italy: 15 Andrea Masi, 14 Kaine Robertson, 13 Gonzalo Canale, 12 Gonzalo Garcia, 11 Mirco Bergamasco, 10 Andrea Marcato, 9 Mauro Bergamasco, 8 Sergio Parisse (captain), 7 Alessandro Zanni, 6 Josh Sole, 5 Marco Bortolami, 4 Santiago Dellape, 3 Martin Castrogiovanni, 2 Fabio Ongaro, 1Salvatore Perugini
Replacements: 16 Carlo Festuccia, 17 Carlos Nieto, 18 Tommaso Reato, 19 Jean-Francois Montauriol, 20 Giulio Toniolatti, 21 Luke McLean, 22 Matteo Pratichetti
Date: Saturday, February 7
Venue: Twickenham, London
Kick-off: 15.00 (15.00 GMT)
Expected weather conditions: No surprise, it is going to be cold. High of 2°C, a low of -3°C. No rain or snow expected though with the weather man actually predicting Sunny intervals for most of the day.
Referee: Mark Lawrence (South Africa)
Touch judges: Joel Jutge (France), Peter Allan (Scotland)
TMO: Nigel Whitehouse (Wales)