Farrell confident 'backs to the wall' France can do England a favour
England have not always treated this Rome fixture with the respect it deserves. There have been too many tempting diversions and too many airy dismissals of Italy as a major Test-playing nation.
If the visitors make the same mistakes this time, their dream of winning a first Six Nations title under the stewardship of Stuart Lancaster will come to nothing.
"I'd be very surprised if we were guilty of a lack of focus," said assistant coach Andy Farrell.
Somehow, you just knew he was calling it right. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that England will find it hard-going at Stadio Olimpico: "It's their last game as well as ours, it's a sell-out, and everyone wants to end the competition on a high note, so why wouldn't the Italians see this as their biggest game for a long time?" asked Farrell rhetorically – but it is difficult to imagine them struggling as a result of complacency.
Farrell has spent the week emphasising the importance of this game's psychological landscape.
"It's different," he said. "Physically, the players are in as good a place as they've ever been at the end of a tournament," he added. "What we've been working on most is the mental side."
So little has separated England from the Azzurri in recent games here, it seems laughable to suggest that the visitors can win the title without plenty of help from the French – not obviously the people most likely to do them a favour.
Ireland, who play in Paris this evening, are miles ahead on the points differential chart, to the extent that even the narrowest of Irish victories over Les Bleus will leave England needing to beat Italy by a clear half-century. Realistically, only an Irish defeat will suit.
"I think we have a good chance," argued Farrell. "The French are at their best when their backs are against the wall and with questions being asked of them this week and people walking out of press conferences ... Paris is a dangerous place to play in such circumstances."
Over recent campaigns, the Azzurri have shown themselves able to match England up front, scrum for scrum and tackle for tackle. The fact that Martin Castrogiovanni, the most formidable of their tight forwards, will miss today's game through injury has been offset by the return of the wondrous Sergio Parisse at No 8, and if the Australian-born lock-turned-flanker Josh Furno has anything like the game he had against the Scots last month, they will be a handful up front.
"They're an emotional bunch," Farrell said. "What we have to do is break their spirit first and foremost, then play accordingly."
The smart money must be on a Red Rose victory today – probably a convincing one, forged at least in part in Italy's new-found determination to use some of the ball they win at close quarters.
The more the Azzurri move it wide, the more England will fancy their chances of turning them over and hitting them on the break.
Will it win them the title? Not on its own. For that, they will need France to come to the party. (© Independent News Service)
Italy – L McLean; A Esposito, M Campagnaro, G Garcia, L Sarto; L Orquera, T Tebaldi; M Aguero, L Ghiraldini, L Cittadini; Q Geldenhuys, M Bortolami; J Furno, R Barbieri, S Parisse (captain). Reps: D Giazzon, M Rizzo, A de Marchi, G Biagi, P Derbyshire, E Gori, T Allan, A Masi.
England – M Brown; J Nowell, L Burrell, B Twelvetrees, J May; O Farrell, D Care; J Marler, D Hartley, D Wilson, J Launchbury, C Lawes; T Wood, C Robshaw (capt), B Morgan. Reps: T Youngs, M Vunipola, H Thomas, D Attwood, T Johnson, L Dickson, G Ford, M Tuilagi .
ITALY V ENGLAND,
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