England coach Eddie Jones is adamant that Italy are making “rapid progress” even though his much-changed side will be overwhelming favourites to inflict more Six Nations misery on the Azzurri.
Jones has made six personnel changes and two positional switches for Sunday’s second-round match in Rome following England’s 20-17 loss to Scotland at Murrayfield last weekend.
But that reverse is nothing compared with Italy’s woes — last week’s 37-10 thumping by France was their 33rd successive defeat in the Six Nations.
England have yet to lose to Italy but Jones believes the arrival of coach Kieran Crowley, who took charge last year, and a crop of promising young players mean better days await the perennial strugglers.
“They are a well-coached team,” Jones said after naming his side on Friday. “They have made some really rapid progress under Kieran Crowley.
“He has coached successfully at Canada, done a great job with Benetton and knows Italian rugby culture.”
‘Good young players’
Jones also said the emergence of 21-year-old fly-half Paolo Garbisi and 23-year-old flanker Michele Lamaro was proof of the talent in Italy’s ranks.
“They have some good young players coming through,” said the veteran Australian coach. “If you look at their Under-20s over the last four to five seasons, they have done exceptionally well.
“Now they are getting guys like Garbisi coming through, and being good enough to keep a World Cup winner like (South Africa’s Handre) Pollard on the bench at Montpellier.
“Lamaro, the No. 7 (openside flanker), is a very tough strong competitor who would make most international teams.”
Jones has kept Ben Youngs waiting to equal the England caps record after naming him on the bench for Sunday’s match in Rome.
Harry Randall, capped just twice, will start at scrum-half, although Leicester veteran Youngs will equal Jason Leonard’s record of 114 England international appearances if he comes off the bench at the Stadio Olimpico.
“We’ve been really pleased with Harry. Benny started for us last week and we’ve just reversed the roles,” said Jones.
“He’s a livewire half-back, he’s very good in broken play. He’s got a good solid pass on him. And his kicking game is improving.”
Joe Marchant will start at outside centre, while Jack Nowell fills the space on the left wing vacated by Marchant’s move to midfield.
Maro Itoje has switched from lock to blindside flanker in the absence of the injured Lewis Ludlam, with Alex Dombrandt at No. 8 in place of the benched Sam Simmonds and captain Tom Curry completing the back row.
“We want to see Alex Dombrandt play in a game that we think will really suit him,” said Jones.
“Italy tend to be more open and unstructured-type games so we feel that it’s a great game for him to start at No. 8.”
Jamie George starts at hooker in a revamped front row instead of Luke Cowan-Dickie, now among the replacements
Jones, however, stressed Cowan-Dickie’s demotion was no reflection on the penalty try he conceded that allowed Scotland to level the match at 17-17.
“No, not at all,” he said. “He hasn’t been able to train this week. He did a little bit today (Friday) and we’ve got two very good hookers there.”