England will be hunting a handsome bonus-point victory when they face off with Italy in their Six Nations meeting at Twickenham on Saturday.
It’s so far so good for the English as they have come through the first two fixtures with eight points, two more than their nearest rival.
However, as many predicted, it seems as though all roads are leading to Dublin on March 18 and what could well be a Championship decider.
Scotland might have something to say about that though in a fortnight’s time and if they can defeat Wales this Saturday, they would head to Twickenham in the frame for the title before finishing up with the simplest Round 6 match, at home to an Azzurri side that may be tiring.
At the moment England are favourites to retain their crown and a win this weekend would a remarkable 16th in a row, 15 under Jones. This streak has to end at some time but one would be hard pressed to find anyone other than those in blue thinking it will happen on Saturday.
Jones has rightly limited his changes to just tinkering, as Ben Te’o gets a first England start at outside centre, at the expense of Jonathan Joseph.
Elsewhere James Haskell will relish his start while Dylan Hartley keeps his place and the captaincy, with Owen Farrell on his 50th appearance. The Saracen has been outstanding and continues to mature as a number 12.
Farrell will be driven to help his side equal the all-time Championship record of 10 successive wins this weekend and with England the only team Italy have yet to beat in the Six Nations, it’s surely going to be another win in the bag, mostly likely with a bonus point.
Such is the wave England are riding at the moment that even Chelsea FC manager Antonio Conte – whose outfit are leading the Premier League by eight points – visited training on Wednesday. The Italian was present “to gain inspiration and tactical ideas” from their squad, which given Chelsea’s impressive season is testament to what Jones’ coaching staff and his healthy selection of players are doing at the moment.
A further boost to England’s hopes of becoming the first team to claim back-to-back Six Nations Grand Slams is the return of Mako Vunipola. That will of course boost their options up front while a possible comeback in Dublin for brother Billy would be another bullet in the gun.
England then are fully loaded and ready to go for this clash, which should ultimately yield five points, before the week’s break and then the run-in against their rivals. The question is whether those games take them to new heights or they suffer their first bump in the Test road.
Players to Watch
For England: Winning a first start at scrum-half since England clinched last year’s Grand Slam is Danny Care. The Harlequins number nine has worked hard to improve his kicking game and he noticeably lifted England’s tempo against Wales when he came off the bench, hence his selection as England hope to run Italy off their feet. Ben Te’o has really impressed in his two cameos and now gets a long-awaited start.
For Italy: It’s good to see Michele Campagnaro given a start in the Azzurri’s midfield. When handed chances for Exeter and Italy he rarely disappoints, with his powerful running game a real weapon. Italy will need him at his destructive best if they are to trouble the English defence on Saturday, with the same going for talismanic leader Sergio Parisse who will be vital in keeping his side’s heads on their task.
Head-to-head: Conor O’Shea has opted to give Tommaso Allan an opportunity to prove himself as he comes in for Carlo Canna at fly-half. He goes up against George Ford with the pair having different, yet equally vital jobs at Twickenham. Ford will be eager to keep the ball in hand and attack the wide channels when it’s on while it’s expected that Allan will be asked to play a much safer, territorial game. He’ll face an uphill task though as England will be the pack going forward so he must also show his mettle defensively. A hard afternoon awaits.
2016: England won 40-9 in Rome
2015: England won 47-17 at Twickenham
2014: England won 52-11 in Rome
2013: England won 18-11 at Twickenham
2012: England won 19-15 in Rome
2011: England won 59-13 at Twickenham
2010: England won 17-12 in Rome
2009: England won 36-11 at Twickenham
England: 15 Mike Brown, 14 Jonny May, 13 Ben Te’o, 12 Owen Farrell, 11 Elliot Daly, 10 George Ford, 9 Danny Care, 8 Nathan Hughes, 7 James Haskell, 6 Maro Itoje, 5 Courtney Lawes, 4 Joe Launchbury, 3 Dan Cole, 2 Dylan Hartley (c), 1 Joe Marler
Replacements: 16 Jamie George, 17 Mako Vunipola, 18 Kyle Sinckler, 19 Tom Wood, 20 Jack Clifford, 21 Ben Youngs, 22 Henry Slade, 23 Jack Nowell
Italy: 15 Edoardo Padovani, 14 Giulio Bisegni, 13 Michele Campagnaro, 12 Luke McLean, 11 Giovanbattista Venditti, 10 Tommaso Allan, 9 Edoardo Gori, 8 Sergio Parisse (c), 7 Simone Favaro, 6 Abraham Steyn, 5 Andries Van Schalkwyk, 4 Marco Fuser, 3 Lorenzo Cittadini, 2 Leonardo Ghiraldini, 1 Andrea Lovotti
Replacements: 16 Ornel Gega, 17 Michele Rizzo, 18 Pietro Ceccarelli, 19 George Biagi, 20 Maxime Mata Mbanda’, 21 Giorgio Bronzini, 22 Carlo Canna, 23 Tommaso Benvenuti
Date: Sunday, February 26
Venue: Twickenham, London
Kick-off: 15:00 GMT
Referee: Romain Poite (France)
Assistant Referees: Mathieu Raynal (France), Andrew Brace (Ireland)
TMO: George Ayoub (Australia)