By Micil Glennon
History is not on the side of the Azzurri as they face the daunting challenge of trying to derail England’s Grand Slam hopes.
The record reads that England have won 18 from 18 Tests against Sunday’s visitors, with Italy’s best showing at Twickenham a 20-7 defeat in 2007.
If that’s not bad enough, this campaign sees the sides crossing paths on distinctly differing trajectories.
Since the Italian’s stunning opening-day win over France, it’s all been downhill.
While Scotland got a couple of breakaway tries in the following round, the Azzurri rarely threatened and were too flat throughout.
Wales saw off Jacques Brunel’s men in Rome, cantering home after a tight opening half.
Brunel has made seven changes in personnel plus one positional switch. Luciano Orquera is back at out-half and 93-cap Sergio Parisse returns as captain after his suspension was reduced.
The Stade Francais number eight’s involvement provides a massive boost to the visitors’ chances of holding out for an hour.
The Italians actually have the best goal-kicking record in the tournament so far (89%) and they’ll need a similar return on Sunday.
Flanker Alessandro Zanni has the most offloads thus far but the hosts’ claustrophobic defence should nullify that threat.
England tend to use Six Nations campaigns to calibrate for World Cups, and somewhere in the four-year cycle championship wins just seem to happen.
After wins over Scotland, Ireland and France, Stuart Lancaster’s men find themselves on the verge of a first Grand Slam since Martin Johnson came to Dublin in 2003 and blew away an Irish side who were also looking for a clean sweep.
This season they have been more boa constrictor than rattlesnake in their method, preferring to strangle the life out of opponents before finishing the deed.
The Ireland game in particular demonstrated a patient, methodical approach that paid dividends.
They can probably afford to be more adventurous against Italy – Toby Flood says there will be an emphasis on “having a go” – but Lancaster is pragmatic enough to know that there’s no point in changing a winning game plan a week ahead of what will probably be a winner takes all tie against Wales.
The former Saxons boss hands a first start to Saracens prop Mako Vunipola, while Danny Care and Flood come in for Ben Youngs and Owen Farrell, who is nursing a thigh strain.
Tom Croft returns to the squad 11 months after breaking his neck.
Since two barnstorming opening round games (Wales-Ireland, Italy-France), the championship has been lacking punch. This game is unlikely to set it alight either.
Match prediction: England 35-9 Italy
England v Italy in the RBS 6 Nations at Twickenham on Sunday, 3pm:
England: A Goode; C Ashton, M Tuilagi, B Barritt, M Brown; T Flood, D Care; M Vunipola, T Youngs, D Cole, J Launchbury, G Parling, J Haskell, C Robshaw, T Wood.
Replacements: D Hartley, D Wilson, J Marler, C Lawes, T Croft, B Youngs, F Burns, B Twelvetrees.
Italy: A Masi; G Venditti, G Canale, G Garcia, L McLean; L Orquera, E Gori; A de Marchi, L Ghiraldini, M Castrogiovanni, Q Geldenhuys, J Furno, A Zanni, R Barbieri, S Parisse.
Replacements: D Giazzon, A Lo Cicero, L Cittadini, A Pavanello, F Minto, S Favaro, T Botes, T Benvenuti.
Live RBS 6 Nations coverage on RTÉ Two and RTÉ.ie (Ireland only) from 2pm on Saturday 9 March (Ireland v France 5pm) and 2.30pm on Sunday 10 March.
Live radio coverage of Ireland v France on Saturday Sport on RTÉ Radio 1 and RTÉ.ie (Worldwide) from 2pm.