By Tadhg Peavoy
There is one major question that surrounds this tie. Can England beat Italy by 50+ points and overturn Ireland’s 49+ points-difference advantage, and in doing so put pressure on Ireland to win by two points or more? Instinct says this is unlikely.
In 19 encounters, England have never lost to Italy, but they have also never won by +50 points or more in Rome; the closest they came was in 2000 when the won by 47 points.
In addition, in their last three matches in the Eternal City, the Red Rose has only won by margins of four, five and four points. So, in essence, England will have to create a historic winning margin to put themselves completely in the box seat on Saturday afternoon.
However, the other crucial dimension to the game is that they they may just need to win.
If France beat Ireland in Paris, then England and France will decide the championship between themselves on points difference.
However, can France win by the 31+ points necessary to overturn England’s points difference? Perhaps that is an even more unlikely outcome than Italy being steamrolled by England in Rome.
You would, however, say that England should take care of business in terms of the victory alone in Rome.
They have been building steadily under Stuart Lancaster over the championship, getting better, and more accurate with every passing game.
Lancaster’s pack has become the best in the competition, with a combination of solidity at the set-piece, allied to hole-punching on forward drives around the edge of the breakdown, and in the channels around the halfbacks, better than anything the other five packs have been able to muster.
Joe Marler's absence from the frontrow due to the impending birth of his child is a big loss, as Mako Vunipola is short on scrummaging ability; he will be severely tested by the hugely experienced Lorenzo Cittadini. Dave Wilson at tighthead is also far from the best in that position in this tournament and Matias Aguero will target him.
If Italy are to have any chance of an upset, the scrum must be an area of dominance from which England will struggle to get a regular platform and be put on the back foot.
From there, Italy will have an in where they can take the game to England.
I think they are likely to get this, but may not have enough elsewhere to trouble England. Joe Launchbury and Courtney Lawes have been the outstanding lock pairing in the tournament and it’s hard to see Quentin Geldenhuys and Marco Bortolami having the athletic ability and supreme fitness to outdo them.
In the Italian backrow Sergio Parisse returns at number eight, which is the single most important factor in Italy having a chance in this tie.
Against Ireland last week, Italy were leaderless in the loose and the balding legend will be the man that takes the game to England this time out.
Ben Morgan and Tom Wood will be charged with chopping him all day long at Stadio Olimpico, giving Chris Robshaw the room to roam and support the backline.
England’s backline had been much maligned coming into the championship and to a large extent they have proved their critics wrong.
At scrumhalf Danny Care has shown himself to be the answer England have been looking for: quick in the loose, with a sharp pass and the desire to roam into the loose, has made him look a fearsome opponent.
Owen Farrell outside him at 10 is still growing as a player, but in excellent performances against Ireland and Wales, he has finally begun to show that he is starting to lead the line with the sort of efficiency and decision making needed by an England ten.
The England back five have also impressed and made a mockery of their critics. Billy Twelvetrees is now supplying the steadying hand from 12, while Luther Burrell gives the electricity from 13.
The back three of Jonny May, Jack Nowell and Mike Brown have been sensational. Their link play, counter-attacking and ability to cut in off the wings into the cluttered midfield area has been world class and has earmarked all three as some of the most consistent performers in the tournament.
Italy’s backline just doesn’t have the quality that England possess. They have moments of brilliance, but it is all too sporadic and prone to weakness in defence.
This was best exemplified in defeat to Scotland, where the Azzurri gave the ball away needlessly twice, both times resulting in tries for Alex Dunbar. These, ultimately, proved costly as Italy lost the tie at the death to a Duncan Weir drop-goal.
On Saturday, England will have to break Italy down and withstand a huge physical battle in the first half, probably opening a gap with some kicked penalties from Farrell early on.
However, when legs tire and space opens up, Care and Farrell should begin to dominate Tito Tebaldi and Luciano Orquera at halfback, creating quicker ball for the outside backs, which will be used more efficiently.
Gonzalo Garcia should stand up well to Twelvetrees, but Burrell is likely to gain the upper hand on Michele Campagnaro, either in terms of missed tackles, or in creating space for offloads to the wide channels where Angelo Esposito and Leonardo Sarto must contain the England back three.
They struggled in this last element against Ireland last week, drifting off their opposite numbers and allowing far too much space along the flanks.
If the same patterns occur this week then you can see England recording a deserved and comfortable victory with a handful of tries the difference.
Verdict: England to win by 20.
Live television coverage of the RBS 6 Nations from 12:00 on Saturday 5 March (12:30 Italy v England, 14:45 Wales v Scotland, 17:00 France v Ireland) on RTÉ Two and RTE.ie (Ireland only). Live radio coverage of France v Ireland on Saturday Sport (14:00) on RTÉ Radio 1 and RTÉ.ie (Worldwide).