The 2018 Six Nations kicks off in less than two weeks time and first up for defending champions England is the side that confounded and bemused Eddie Jones’ side at Twickenham twelve months ago, Italy.
Led by Conor O’Shea, there is a sense that the Azzurri are at the beginning of a period of genuine rebirth. Working with the grassroots and clubs, O’Shea is looking to developed Italy’s rugby talent pool from the earliest possible time so that when they come of age, the national side will have a depth of talent they have been sorely lacking for so long.
While this is likely to take far longer than O’Shea is ever likely to stay in the job, he has set the ball in motion for the future and the hope is the Italian Rugby Federation will stay the course long after the Irishman has departed.
In the meantime, Italy are looking ahead to the opening fixture of their Six Nations campaign and as fixtures go, they really couldn’t be faced with anything more difficult.
Despite being at home and enjoying the benefits that this advantage can provide, the arrival of double-defending champions England to Rome means that the perennial bottom side in the Six Nations table have been set the hardest possible opening encounter they could imagine.
Much has been made of England’s so-called injury crisis ahead of the tournament in recent days. Chris Robshaw, Maro Itoje, Mike Brown, Jack Nowell, Henry Slade and Kyle Sinckler are all nursing injuries or niggles and there are question marks hanging over the heads of many of these players ahead of the opening fixtures.
During the media scrum that was the Six Nations press launch on Wednesday, England injury woes were put to Italy’s Conor O’Shea, where they were promptly dismissed by the Irishman.
Offering to pick Eddie Jones’ team for the clash with Italy, O’Shea simply and succinctly reminded everyone of just how strong the England side are this year.
While he names a couple of players with question marks hanging over the fitness, O’Shea suggests a side that would genuinely cause any side to lose sleep.
Take a look.
— World Rugby (@WorldRugby) January 24, 2018
While Italy are known for putting up one hell of a fight at home on the first day of the Six Nations, they will need to collectively play better than they have ever done in order to hand Jones’ England a second defeat in 24 international Tests.
Though it is broadly assumed England will depart Rome with the spoils, the magic of the Six Nations is that anything can happen.
We England to lose in Rome, all bets are off on just which nation will step up and wrestle the title from the hands of the defending champions.