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Six Nations: England set for comfortable start to title defence in Italy

England have won the Six Nations for the last two years under Eddie Jones
England have won the Six Nations for the last two years under Eddie Jones
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Simon Mail previews England's opening Six Nations game in Italy and expects the defending champions to have few problems getting off to a winning start...

"The last five matches between England and Italy have seen more tries scored in the second half. This is no surprise as the pressure on the Italians has eventually told and England have opened them up as they tired during the latter stages."

Italy v England
Sunday, 15:00 GMT
Live on ITV

England can make Six Nations history this season if they win the title for the third successive year. Eddie Jones has known nothing but success in the competition during his tenure having backed up a Grand Slam triumph with their championship defence in 2017. His record in charge of England is exceptional with Ireland, in last year's final game, the only team to defeat them.

The team's preparation for this year's tournament has been less than ideal though with a spate of injuries hitting the squad. Jones still has a wealth of options at his disposal but there is no doubt influential players such as Billy Vunipola and Elliot Daly will be missed. It means fringe players could get the opportunity to make an impression and potentially stake a claim for a World Cup place next year.

But Jones still fields a strong England side in Sunday's opener. Ben Te'o has made a quick return to fitness following an ankle injury and is preferred at centre, alongside Owen Farrell, to Jonathan Joseph. Exeter's Sam Simmonds starts at number eight alongside Chris Robshaw and Courtney Lawes. Mike Brown has recovered from an eye problem to start at full-back while Ben Youngs and George Ford from the half-back pairing.

Italy have finished bottom of the Six Nations for the last two seasons without picking up a single point. Their last victory in the competition came in Scotland three years ago which shows the scale of the challenge facing head coach Conor O'Shea. Italy adopted a strategy of not entering the ruck to avoid creating an offside line, which puzzled England at Twickenham last year and caused them problems during the 36-15 defeat, but the tactic will not be an option this time after the law was changed last summer.

England have never lost to Italy and this looks like being another mismatch. With wins in all 23 meetings, England have dominated their opponents and 21 points has been the lowest margin of victory in the last four clashes. The match market is a non starter with England priced up at [1.06] and the only question seems to be how much will the margin of victory be?

The overall handicap mark is pitched at 20 points and the visitors would ordinarily be expected to cover this. But there is the possibility Italy get off to a fast start, as they did at Twickenham last season with a 10-5 half-time lead, so this market can be left alone. There is always the possibility of a rusty opening from England and Italy may see this as their best chance to unsettle them early on.

The last five matches between England and Italy have seen more tries scored in the second half. This is no surprise as the pressure on the Italians has eventually told and England have opened them up as they tired during the latter stages. It looks worth sticking with the trend and again backing more tries in the second half as the visitors will find extra space to break down Italy the longer the match goes on.

It could also be worth backing England to cover a 12-point second-half handicap. Italy may be able to frustrate the champions for a period of time but their fitness levels are likely to be exposed during the second half. With attacking options such as Joseph, Danny Care and Jack Nowell available on the bench it is easy to see the visitors pulling away late on. This would have been a winning bet in the last four clashes between the sides.

Follow Simon's bets on Twitter @watfordtipster

2017/18 Rugby P/L

Staked: 90pts
Returned: 67.7pts
P/L: -22.3pts

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