We are only a matter of hours away, untill England commence their 2024 Guinness Six Nations campaign. The stage is set in sunny Rome, with the Stadio Olimpico presenting an ideallic backdrop for this first round match.
Both Italy and England will be without two talismanic talents, as Marcus Smith and Ange Capuozzo have been ruled out of the match. Smith’s Six Nations looks in jeopardy, as the Harlequin hobbled out of England’s training camp on crutches, whilst Capuozzo misses the opening round with a reported illness.
Despite the unavailabilities, there are plenty of top players set to light up the Italian capital this afternoon for both nations. Here we take a look along three key battles, that could well play out to be decisive in this afternoon’s match.
1. FLY HALF – Paolo Garbisi vs George Ford / Fin Smith
With Marcus Smith out of the picture for the foreseeable future, England head coach Steve Borthwick has named tried and tested fly half George Ford to lead from the off. England fans are clambering to see the debut of thrilling Northampton Saints halfback Fin Smith, and the 21-year-old takes up the 22 jersey amongst the England replacements.
Ford presents a calm head, that can weather through the initial onslaught of the intense Azzurri atmosphere. The fiery fanbase will be rallying their boys in blue, yet the Sale Sharks man is more than capable of dictating the play, and not reacting to the high stakes of the match. Borthwick’s decision to start Ford is an understandable one, yet should the fly half lead England to a comfortable lead with his immaculate goal kicking, expect Fin Smith to make his debut, and receive a roar of support from the travelling fans.
Opposing Ford at kick off is Montpellier’s Paolo Garbisi, who could well be on his way to the Premiership following recent reports. The enigmatic halfback is rumoured to be on his way to Saracens, with his name thrown into the ring of potential candidates to replace Owen Farrell next season. Garbisi is an animated character that is thrilling to watch, he carries the ball high to the line and feeds through his supporting carries with the most delicate of passes.
Garbisi is also bruising in the carry, and is amongst the strongest of the Six Nations fly halves when going alone into contact. This technical prowess coupled with an unrelenting passion for his country, makes Garbisi at times unplayable, and amongst the top threats for England to keep they eye on.