After waiting more than seven months for this Six Nations decider against Italy, England are braced for a Test of patience in Rome on Saturday. Excitement, emotion and impatience must be kept in check.
A game which was supposed to have taken place in front of a capacity crowd on March 14 is now going ahead against a backdrop of deserted stands and rigorous health and safety measures.
The visitors will win – that is a sporting certainty – but the key for Eddie Jones’s side is that they remain composed and avoid the trap of trying to force the pace too soon in the quest for a bonus point and a try spree.
England are braced for a Test of patience ahead of the crunch Six Nations decider against Italy
England’s players are straining at the leash after their long international hiatus and have so much to play for in the locked-down Eternal City.
A third Six Nations title of the Jones era is the prize in their sights but they also want to deliver a performance worthy of an occasion with layers of significance.
Ben Youngs is reaching a Test century, Jamie George is celebrating his 50th cap and Exeter lock Jonny Hill is making his debut, with others on the bench primed to do likewise.
A third Six Nations title of the Eddie Jones (above) era is the prize in their sights on Saturday
No wonder there is such a pronounced sense of anticipation within the England ‘bubble’. However, captain Owen Farrell and his team-mates understand the importance of keeping their heads and playing with disciplined ferocity.
They want to start fast but also start smart. They are aware of the dangers of being too eager, too frantic and too loose too soon. The need to be patient will be drummed into them.
‘That’s exactly the message,’ said George. ‘It’s about patience in international rugby. Obviously we’ve been waiting for the game for a long time and everyone is going to be desperate to get out there. We had our team run and it’s 20 degrees here in Rome so the tendency would be to go out and throw the ball around but we are very focused on our game-plan.
‘Italy don’t just roll over, they’re going to be very up for it. We need to be very confrontational and physical at the start of the game and I think that’s when English rugby’s at its best and this team’s at its best. Hopefully points will come off the back of that.
There is a sense of anticipation inside England’s camp but the players must remain disciplined
‘The main message to the team is don’t get carried away with what’s on the scoreboard because if we start chasing that the game might get away from us. Back the process, back the system and if anything needs to be tinkered later in the game that’s what we’ll do. We have great leaders who will lead us in the right direction.’
Any attempt to run riot from the off, without putting in the necessary groundwork first, will not be tolerated by the England hierarchy. Billy Vunipola will be expected to set the tone to soften up the Italian defence and he has taken on board the back-to-basics mantra in the build-up to this game.
‘Any team that has Eddie Jones – you are not allowed to get ahead of yourself,’ said the No 8. ‘Our biggest focus is how we can set a foundation from where we can kick on. We have watched a lot of our training sessions and different trends within the game.
‘We have to make sure we play the English game and that is through our set piece and make sure that we dominate. After that, hopefully we can play and put some points on the board.’
Billy Vunipola has taken on board the back-to-basics mantra ahead of the dramatic decider
Vunipola was a try-scoring starter in an England team under Stuart Lancaster who faced a similar ‘Super Saturday’ equation in 2015 – chasing a bonus and a big win at home to France.
On that occasion, the hosts scored seven tries but were so fixated on their attacking play that they left the back door open and conceded five. Those lapses proved costly as Ireland snatched the title.
‘One thing that I learned from that was we let it be too frantic,’ he said. ‘We didn’t set the foundations of playing in the right areas, making sure that we tried to wear them down. We allowed it to become a Sevens feel. The focus this week has been on how we can play our way and make sure we do what we need to do to put us in a good position, because we are relying on other results to go our way.’
That is another part of the equation – the staggered kick-offs. English patience will have to extend beyond the final whistle in Rome. They must retreat to their hotel and watch from afar as events unfold in Paris. Ireland cannot be overtaken if they claim a bonus-point win, while dangerous France are not out of the title running either, such is their renewed try-scoring potency.
The outcome will have been worth the wait if England, led by Owen Farrell (left), can be patient
But all England can do is set the highest possible target. With Farrell running the show behind a pack of formidable power, Italy will do well to contain the visitors.
Franco Smith’s team no longer have the reassuring, galvanising presence of Sergio Parisse and while Gloucester’s marauding bull back-rower, Jake Polledri, will test Jones’s defence, the home side should be outclassed.
Providing England can stay patient, the outcome will have been worth waiting for.