Eddie Jones’ young England side look to curtail Italian feelgood factor | England rugby union team

finally some good news for Italian rugby. On Friday, the under-20 side claimed a first win against England in Treviso. England were kept scoreless for good measure for the first time in the competition and though the senior side are on a run of 33 defeats, here is something for Italy to point to. To keep the reformists at bay, and to demonstrate signs of a promising future. On Sunday, in Rome, against the most inexperienced England side Eddie Jones has selected in the Six Nations, and buoyed up by the youngsters’ exploits, the senior side couldn’t follow suit, could they?

No, is the simple answer. Progress at senior level is still to be gauged by margins of defeat and Jones’s face turned to stone this week when discussing one ex-international’s suggestion that England could be the scalp Italy have been seeking since 2015. As a former coach of a developing nation, Jones is well versed in preparing his side for matches like these and in Rome they have had few problems during his tenure.

They have been largely forgettable affairs, memorable only for Maro Itoje’s debut in 2016 and the long-term injury suffered two years later by Ben Youngs, for whom it should be a cathartic return if he comes off the bench and equals England’s all-time caps record.

That is mainly because Jones has cared little for aesthetics. He hammers home to his players that while the expectation is to win well, the aim first and foremost must simply be to win. Just like 12 months ago, they have a disappointing defeat by Scotland to get out of their system.

Yet there is something in the air. Jones normally makes changes against Italy – five a year ago, seven the year before that and six on Sunday – but with Alex Dombrandt, Harry Randall and Marcus Smith lining up at 8-9-10, with Joe Marchant returning to the centers and Jack Nowwell coming on to the wing to give the backline a more balanced feel, he has taken off the shackles.

It is no surprise he has stacked his replacements bench with more caps than the starting XV and if all goes to plan it is easy to envisage Luke Cowan-Dickie and Sam Simmonds filling their boots in the last 20 minutes.

The preceding hour, however, promises to be more significant. These days Italy tend to be able to live with more heralded opponents, just not for long enough. They were defensively robust for spells against New Zealand in the autumn and France last week but there is a familiar pattern that the superior fitness and greater depth of their opponents pays off in the closing stages. It was the same when England were last in Rome, seeking the 2020 title in the postponed October fixture. At half-time England, seeking a bonus point, led only 10-5 but the dam subsequently burst. What piques the interest is how the rookies perform from the word go. Try to force things and, as we have seen against lesser sides, some of them may not be seen in an England shirt again for a while. But marry patience with poise and show the cutting edge that was missing at Murrayfield and Jones will feel he has found the blueprint for matches at the 2023 World Cup that will require a high tempo. A plan B, as it were.

The Italy Under-20s coach, Massimo Brunello, is carried aloft by his players after they beat England in Treviso on Friday. Photographer: Ettore Griffoni/LiveMedia/Shutterstock

“It is about developing a new England side we want to equip for the next World Cup,” he said. “The World Cup in France is reasonably unique because you are going to be playing the majority of the pool games and up to the quarter-final on fast open pitches so to progress to the last four you are going to need to have a very good attack game. We need to be able to play the old England way and the new England way.”

Which brings us back to the balance he is trying to strike between challenging for the Six Nations title with memories of last year’s fifth-place finish still lingering and preparing his side for the World Cup. It is a fine line to tread and it got a little finer after the defeat by Scotland but before sterner tests after the first rest week, Italy’s inferiority affords them the wriggle room. The key will be how they put it to use.

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